Iraq authorities 'using violence and bribes' to curb dissent

Protest organisers and demonstrators are allegedly being 'hunted down' by the Iraqi security services with the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, apparently insistent on quashing dissent on the streets.

Supporters of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr meet in Baghdad yesterday. He has given the government six months to improve.
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BAGHDAD // Authorities in Iraq are using a mixture of strong-arm tactics and financial persuasion to prevent anti-government protests gaining momentum.

The political stakes escalated significantly when thousands of people took to the streets of Baghdad and other major cities last week to demand reforms, improved services and an end to the corruption associated with Iraq's new political elite.

Those demonstrations, the largest yet in Iraq, were met by force, as riot police opened fire on protesters with live ammunition. At least 29 people were killed, including a 14-year-old boy.

Since then, army and police units have beaten, arrested or threatened scores of political activists and journalists, their colleagues say. Meanwhile, government security and intelligence agencies are trying to root out the organisers of the protests, especially those who are using the internet in an attempt to organise another mass protest.

Hussein Abdul Hadi, a blogger who helped to arrange the "Day of Rage" march in Baghdad, said: "The intelligence services are collecting information about activists and after the demonstrations they have been making arrests and detaining people."

According to Mr Hadi and other activists, the number detained in the past three days runs into the dozens. Abul Razzq Nouri, a blogger from Anbar province who helped to organise last week's demonstration, said protest organisers and demonstrators were being "hunted down". The security services deny any systemic effort to silence demonstrators and have promised to carry out a wide-ranging probe into allegations of abuse.

Qassim Attar, spokesman at the Baghdad Operations Command centre, which oversees security of the Iraqi capital, said he believed some soldiers had "overreacted" and behaved "stupidly" during the protest. "We have opened an investigation into the claims of damage against journalists and protesters and if we find evidence that laws have been broken by members of the security services, they will be punished," he said.

With more demonstrations contemplated, Mr Nouri said Iraq was entering a "dangerous time", with the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, apparently insistent on quashing dissent on the streets.

"Al Maliki doesn't want any future demonstrations and he is doing all he can to stop us, he is coming after us," he said.

Even before the Friday protests, the prime minister had moved to defuse them, imposing a curfew and a vehicle ban.

Another success for the government in tamping down the protests has been its management of the media. In the months running up to the demonstrations, the government has given Iraqi journalists gifts including plots of land, low-interest loans for car purchases and cash handouts, all of them officially sanctioned and distributed under the auspices of the journalists' union.

Sabah Khadim Hamza, office director at the journalist's syndicate, was adamant the land allocations and car loans were not bribes, but instead perks the union had struggled to get for its members. "Many government employees in the ministries enjoy such benefits and we wanted to win them for hard-working journalists," he said. "It does not mean reporters will stop being independent."

But critics were not so sure. "Most of the domestic media didn't cover the protests in detail and really downplayed them. They didn't interview protesters or ask them why they were marching," said one journalist for a leading Iraqi television channel.

"Basically, al Maliki has found out how to control journalists. He's given them money and land, and on Friday they paid him back by not covering the protests. Only the reporters working for outside media did their jobs properly that day," he said.

The government repression, plus payments to journalists to spin public opinion in the government's favour, have so far been effective in limiting the size and frequency of protests in Iraq.

"The government has bribed and beaten journalists to stop them covering the demonstrations," said Nasir al Shalal, a leading human rights activist. "The police and army in Baghdad, Mosul and Anbar were targeting reporters who were trying to film the protests or cover them properly."

Mr al Maliki's office has said it would investigate allegations of improper use of force. But it insists that any abuses were an overreaction by a handful of security personnel, not a matter of policy.

Officials have also long brushed off allegations that Iraqi journalists receive government bribes. They say gifts of land and cheap loans are designed to support poorly paid reporters who would otherwise have to find another profession, not to buy their silence or complicity.

Mr Shalal dismissed such assurances. "It was not an accident. It was all quite deliberate. A decision was taken at the highest level about how to handle this."

In Mosul, a traditional centre of opposition to the central authority, protesters have accused the government of sending out hit squads, armed with silenced pistols, to sow chaos among the demonstrators.

Omar Majid, a blogger from Mosul, said: "The emergency security forces arrested and beat tens of activists, and gangs working for the government, dressed in civilian clothes, shot and injured people here during the Friday protest, to spread fear. Now these gangs are after us and anyone connected with the movement. They are trying to stop us."

Shaker Kitab, an MP from Iraqiyya, said there were indications the government was acting illegally to suppress demonstrations.

"It was a very modern and peaceful protest, in accordance with people's constitutional rights, I don't understand why some of the security forces were violent in their response. This must stop. People are allowed to campaign peacefully for their rights."