Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 1:34 PM
BAGHDAD – Iraqi security forces detained hundreds of people, including prominent journalists, artists and intellectuals, witnesses said Saturday, a day after nationwide demonstrations brought tens of thousands of Iraqis into the streets and ended with soldiers shooting into crowds.
Four journalists who had been released described being rounded up well after they had left a protest at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. They said they were handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution by soldiers from an army intelligence unit.
“It was like they were dealing with a bunch of al-Qaeda operatives, not a group of journalists,” said Hussam al-Ssairi, a journalist and poet, who was among a group and described seeing hundreds of protesters in black hoods at the detention facility. “Yesterday was like a test, like a picture of the new democracy in Iraq.”
Protesters mostly stayed home Saturday, following more than a dozen demonstrations across the country Friday that killed at least 29 people, as crowds stormed provincial buildings, forced local officials to resign, freed prisoners and otherwise demanded more from a government they only recently had a chance to elect.
“I have demands!” Salma Mikahil, 48, cried out from Tahrir Square on Friday, as military helicopters and snipers looked down on thousands of people bearing handmade signs and olive branches signifying peace. “I want to see if Maliki can accept that I live on this,” Mikahil said, waving a 1,000-dinar note, worth less than a dollar, toward Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s offices. “I want to see if his conscience accepts it.”
The protests – billed as Iraq’s “Day of Rage” – were intended to call for reform of Maliki’s government, not revolution. From the southern city of Basra to northern cities of Kurdistan, protesters demanded the simple dignities of adequate electricity, clean water and a decent job.
As the day wore on, however, the demonstrations grew violent when security forces deployed water cannons and sound bombs to disperse crowds. Iraqi military helicopters swooped toward the demonstrators in Baghdad, and soldiers fired into angry crowds in the protest here and in at least seven others across the country.
And in that way, the day introduced a new sort of conflict to a population that has been targeted by sectarian militias and suicide bombers. Now, many wondered whether they would have to add to the list of enemies their government.
Ssairi and his three colleagues, one of whom had been on the radio speaking in support of protesters, said about a dozen soldiers stormed into a restaurant where they were eating dinner Friday afternoon and began beating them as other diners looked on in silence. They drove them to a side street and beat them again.
Then, blindfolded, they were driven to the former Ministry of Defense building, which houses an intelligence unit of the Iraqi army’s 11th Division, they said. Hadi al-Mahdi, a theater director and radio anchor who has been calling for reform, said he was blindfolded and beaten repeatedly with sticks, boots and fists. One soldier put a stick into Hadi’s handcuffed hands and threatened to rape him with it, he said.
The soldiers accused him of being a tool of outsiders wishing to topple Maliki’s government; they demanded that he confess to being a member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Hadi told them that he blamed Baathists for killing two of his brothers and that until recently he had been a member of Maliki’s Dawa Party.
Hadi said he was then taken to a detention cell, his blindfold off, where he said there were at least 300 people with black hoods over their heads, many groaning in bloody shirts. Several told him they had been detained during or after the protests.
Hadi, who comes from a prominent Iraqi family, and his colleagues were released after their friends managed to make some well-placed phone calls.
“This government is sending a message to us, to everybody,” he said Saturday, his forehead bruised, his left leg swollen.
Although the protests were primarily aimed at reform, there were mini examples of revolution all day Friday, hyperlocal versions of the recent revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and, in a way, Libya. Crowds forced the resignation of the governor in southern Basra and the entire city council in Fallujah. They also chased away the governor of Mosul, the brother of the speaker of parliament, who was there and fled, too.
The protests began peacefully but grew more aggressive. Angry crowds seized a police station in Kirkuk, set fire to a provincial office in Mosul and rattled fences around the local governate offices in Tikrit, prompting security forces to open fire with live bullets, killing four people. Three people were killed in Kirkuk.
Six people were killed in Fallujah and six others in Mosul, according to reports from officials and witnesses in at least seven protests. On Saturday, officials reported additional deaths: a 60-year old man in Fallujah; two people, including a 13-year old boy, in Qobaisa; and two in Ramadi, all in predominantly Sunni Anbar province.
The reports attributed most casualties to security forces who opened fire.
By sundown in Baghdad on Friday, security forces were spraying water cannons and exploding sound bombs to disperse protesters, chasing several through streets and alleyways and killing at least three, according to a witness.
Two people were also reported killed in Kurdistan, in the north.
The day’s events posed a unique challenge for the Obama administration, which has struggled to calibrate its responses to the protests rolling across the Middle East and North Africa but has a particular stake in the stability of the fledgling democracy it helped usher in.
Analysts said Friday’s developments were at best awkward for the United States.
“Obama wants to convey that yes, Iraq has a number of problems that need to be addressed, but the country is on the right track,” said Joost Hiltermann, deputy director for the International Crisis Group’s Middle East program. “You can’t possibly say, ‘Iraq is in a crisis, and by the way, we’re leaving.’ ”
The United States is set to complete the withdrawal of all its troops from Iraq by the end of the year.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad played down Friday’s violence, as well as the draconian measures Maliki took to stifle turnout.
Iraq’s security forces “generally have not used force against peaceful protesters,” said Aaron Snipe, an embassy spokesman. “We support the Iraqi people’s right to freely express their political views, to peacefully protest and seek redress form their government. This has been our consistent message in Iraq and throughout the region.”
The turnout Friday appeared to surprise many of the demonstrators, coming as it did after a curfew on cars and even bicycles forced people to walk, often miles, to participate. There were also pleas – some described them as threatening – from Maliki and Shiite clerics, including the populist Moqtada al-Sadr, to stay home.
Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is blamed for some of the worst sectarian violence of the war, is now part of Maliki’s governing coalition and attempting to position himself as both insider and outsider. Sadr’s power lies in his rare ability to call hundreds of thousands into the streets, and analysts said he is perhaps concerned about losing his impoverished urban followers to the new and still only vaguely unified protest movement .
By mid-morning in Baghdad, people were walking toward Tahrir Square along empty streets fortified with soldiers in Humvees, snipers on rooftops and mosque domes and checkpoints with X-ray equipment that might reveal a suicide vest.
Young and old, some missing legs and arms, some chanting old slogans of the Mahdi Army, the protesters passed crumbling high-rise apartment buildings webbed with electrical wires hooked to generators. At times, the air smelled like sewage.
“Bring electricity!” they shouted. “No to corruption!”
By afternoon, several thousand people were milling around the square, which is next to a bridge leading to the heavily guarded international zone housing the government’s offices. Overnight, security forces had hauled in huge blast walls to block the bridge from protesters, who nonetheless managed to hoist a rope around one of them and pull it down.
“As you can see, they are hiding behind this wall!” shouted Sbeeh Noman, a white-haired engineer who said he walked 12 miles to reach the square and was now heading for the bridge. “The government is afraid of the nation. They have found out that the people have the real power.”
email@example.com Special correspondents Ali Qeis and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.