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Iraqi PM Warns People To Avoid 'Day of Rage'

Baghdad residents protest to demand better municipal services
Baghdad residents protest to demand better municipal services
Thousands of Iraqis are planning to take to the streets on February 25 for their own "day of rage" to express their discontent with the country's fledgling democracy, following weeks of small protests that have been met with violence by government officials.

Protest organizer Sheikh Abdel Zahra Mohammed Ali al-Timimi hopes the "Day of Rage" will draw enough people to advance reforms and serve as an indictment against the government, even if the end game is not its overthrow.

"When we demonstrate we want reform rather than regime change. Ours is a new electoral political system. All demonstrators, organizers, and participants alike are among those who went to the polls and installed the present officials in their seats. But to demonstrate is to protest against their performance," al-Timimi said.

Calls For Non-Participation

The planned protests have drawn criticism from the Iraqi government. Speaking in a televised address from Baghdad on February 24, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki characterized organizers as Saddam loyalists.

"I call upon you to abort the schemes hatched by the enemies of freedom and democracy and not to participate in tomorrow's demonstration because it is spurious," al-Maliki said.

"It revives the voice of those who destroyed Iraq, ended its sovereignty, wiped out its institutions, and spread murder and corruption. This, however, in no way means to deny you the right to demonstrate with genuine legitimate demands."

Maliki went on to say, "you can hold these demonstrations at any time or place you want, except for the place and time of a demonstration which Saddamists, terrorists, and Al-Qaeda are behind."

Top leaders of the country's Shi'ite majority have also called on their followers not to participate, dealing a major blow to the protests. A spokesman for the movement headed by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was returning from a trip to Iran, suggested on February 23 that protests be delayed six months. A spokesman for Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani the same day expressed support for the people's concerns, but warned that the protests could be "exploited."

While a Shi'ite no-show will put a serious dent in organizers' hopes of seeing millions of Iraq's on the streets on February 25, members of the country's Sunni population are not expected to be dissuaded.

Analysts say the small-scale protests that have cropped up around the country over the last several weeks reveal the Iraqi people's frustration with corruption and unemployment, and offer them the opportunity to demand that politicians better fulfill their needs. The protests, some of which have been met with violence by government officials, are a test for the fledgling democracy's ability to provide services to its citizens.

Amir Hassan Fayyadh, analyst and dean of the college of political science at Baghdad University, says that protestors have been pressing politicians to fulfill their campaign pledges.

"The protesters' demands concern election promises. All decision makers and officials in Iraq, whether in parliament or in government, made election promises to combat corruption, alleviate unemployment, and create jobs. That is what the protest is about," Fayyadh said.

Possibility Of Violence

Recent demonstrations have crossed sectarian lines in a country still heavily divided by religious differences. Small-scale protests have been held in Baghdad and Basra, both of which house large Shi'ite and Sunni populations; the majority Sunni city of Nasir; the Shi'ite city of Kut; and the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya. All have heard similar, if localized, demands.

The demonstrations are expected to be nationwide, with the largest number of protestors gathering in Baghdad.

Government officials are on high alert to the possibility of violence by protestors as well as terrorists. Major General Qassim Atta, spokesman for the Baghdad operations command, said that there was evidence terrorists were plotting to attack protestors.

"We have proven intelligence that there is a terrorist plan to target the demonstrators by various means, including explosive vests, car bombs, sniper rifles and silencer pistols. We also urge the demonstrators not to approach government offices and banks, whether state-owned or private," Atta said.

Although recent protests around the country were only attended by at most a few hundred people, at least five demonstrators were reportedly killed in clashes with public or private security forces and many more injured or arrested.

On February 20, in Baghdad, dozens of men in civilian clothes, some with knives and clubs, attacked 18 protestors who had set up chairs and a tent in the city's aptly named Tahrir (Liberation) Square and were planning to camp out until the February 25 demonstrations, according to "The New York Times." Several were reportedly badly beaten or stabbed, although none fatally.

Speaking at a February 24 press conference, Basra Governor Shiltagh al-Mayyah lauded the expected protests as a democratic exercise, but cautioned against violence.

"As for the protests which are to take place on Friday, they are a sign of democracy in Iraq. In some other countries, like Bahrain and Libya, you have seen fire opened at people. As for us, we throw flowers at people who protest, we hug them and tell them: this is your legal right," al-Mayyah said. "But…we want also to remind them of the humanitarian feelings, of their patriotism. The protests should not hurt anyone, or damage a public building of the state."

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh dismissed the possibility that the protests in Iraq will have the same result seen in Egypt.

"Ousting the government [in Iraq] is not difficult. It came by elections and goes by elections or may be dismissed by parliament if it so decides. But for a crowd to overthrow the government as in Egypt -- it does not apply in this case," al-Dabbagh said.

RFE/RL correspondent Courtney Rose Brooks contributed to this report

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