The Missing Ingredient in Iraq's Day of Rage

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Hadi Mizban / AP Photo

Iraqi riot police officers prevent anti-government protesters from entering the heavily guarded Green Zone during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Feb. 25, 2011.

Pages in Facebook billed Iraq's Feb. 25 "Day of Rage" as a chance for citizens of all stripes to march down the streets to protest deplorable public services, rampant graft and joblessness. Enough is enough, the organizers declared; if other countries can do it, so can we.

The hope was to tap into the zeitgeist of relatively non-violent democratic upheaval across the Arab world, especially that of Egypt. But it was also meant to be different: not aimed at toppling a long-reviled regime, but to hold a new administration to its promises and push it to improve. After all, as analyst Hiwa Osman points out, "Iraqis know very well what dictatorship is all about and want no part of it." Saddam Hussein, perhaps the most brutal of autocrats in the region, is still a vivid part of living memory.

But Friday's nationwide protests were far from non-violent. In the restive northern city of Mosul, at least six people were killed when security forces opened fire on a crowd of job-seeking protesters. In the southern oil center Basra, an eyewitness told TIME that some 5,000 protesters knocked down concrete blast walls, and forced the governor to resign while trying to storm the provincial council building. Clashes between crowds and security troops were also reported in Fallujah, Tikrit and Hawija. At least 15 people were killed and dozens wounded across Iraq, according to media reports.

There was carnage too in Baghdad. Dr. Ahmed Fadaam said his normally short walk to the city's Tahrir Square took two hours instead because of a curfew on automobiles and even bicycles laid down by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ahead of the planned protest. When he finally arrived, Fadaam saw a street battle. "The demonstrators," says Fadaam, "were trying to cross the Jamahiriya Bridge towards the Green Zone but the government had sealed the bridge the night before. The protestors knocked down two of the blast walls, but at this point the riot police showed up and started pushing the demonstrators back to the square. As the protesters started throwing rocks, two army helicopters arrived overhead and one began buzzing the crowd. At around 4:30 p.m. the riot police had many reinforcements and used a fire truck to hose down the crowd. They also used sound bombs and rubber bullets that caused many injuries."

According to eyewitnesses, at least three protesters were shot dead by police during the standoff. Despite television footage to the contrary, the Baghdad Operation Command and Baghdad Police Department have denied that any protestors were killed or injured.

Multiple issues had helped bring out the protesters. Among the banners on display at Baghdad's Tahrir Square were, "Maliki has become just like Saddam," "We want the government to get rid of corruption and punish the corrupt," and "What happened to all the billions in oil revenue?" Many consider the lack of electricity, clean water and sanitation an insult for a nation known to have some of the world's largest proven petroleum reserves. As unemployed Baghdad resident Mohammed Khuadier al-Hamadani, 49, says, "There is no power, water , basic services, good infrastructure, food rations or jobs in a wealthy oil country like Iraq. This is unjust. They must stop this oppression. I want my share from oil just like the Gulf States. You know the Emir of Kuwait gave his citizens [profits and food rations]. Why can't we be just like them and have a prosperous life?"

The question echoed across Iraq's many divides (Arab-Kurd, Sunni-Shi'a, Muslim-Christian), already galvanized by news about unrest in disaffected regional neighbors. Says Galal Jihad, 58, a senior Iraqi political analyst, "Iraqis, just like other Arab peoples in the region are affected by the uprisings flared out in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. They no longer can tolerate the theft of their national resources and profits. This is thanks also to satellite TV channels, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the modern and sophisticated technologies." Referring to his country's leaders, Jihad adds, "These political dinosaurs and fossils must wake up and meet peoples' demands and be aware that we are in the 21 century. This is a young generation and an era for change."

What makes Iraq's uprising different than Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? Analyst Hiwa Osman points to history, and the US. "Regime change happened in Iraq already," Osman says. "We would've liked it to have been by a popular uprising and we tried it in 1991, immediately after Desert Storm, but Saddam hit back with a vengeance. There were uprising in the north and south and if the Americans had let us we would have had regime change and be decades ahead of what you have today in Egypt and Tunisia. Instead, the regime changed with U.S. intervention in 2003."

In some respects, though, Osman does think Iraq is in a relatively better place than its neighbors: "We have democracy, [though] I'd say we're still figuring things out. But I'd still say Iraq is four or five years ahead of Egypt of Tunisia."

Nevertheless, the events in the region have had their effect in Baghdad. Prime Minister Maliki has said he won't seek a third term, while slashing his and other officials' salaries. A billion-dollar fighter jet purchase has been postponed in light of food shortages. A raft of other social reforms has been launched.

Maliki has one advantage: he isn't an overstaying tyrant and almost every other national politician can be seen in equal or worse light. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group puts it, "Iraq's [political] order is very young, and we saw open elections less than a year ago. While Iraq faces many problems and has a dysfunctional government, and while there is a good deal of corruption, it lacks the kind of identifiable enemy in the people's eyes that is occasioning the popular protests in other countries. This means that demonstrations over pressing issues such as electricity shortages across the country have focused on local government. The outcome is bound to be quite different."