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Shia Clerics Oppose Baghdad Rally

Religious leaders join government in opposing central Baghdad demonstration.
By Abeer Mohammed, Hazim al-Sharaa

Two of Iraq’s most influential Shia religious figures have warned citizens to stay away from mass protests planned for Baghdad on February 25 over government corruption and poor services.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr this week both discouraged Iraqis from attending the “day of rage” protest in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, an event intended to mobilise Iraqis to push for reforms.

The rally, inspired by Egypt’s January 25 revolt, has also been met with official resistance since it was announced on Facebook three weeks ago. Top officials from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government have repeatedly warned that Sunni insurgents could target protesters and that Baathists could hijack the event.

In a final appeal to Iraqis, Maliki in a televised press conference on February 24 said citizens should not take to the streets, pledging that 70 per cent of Iraq’s budget would be allocated to services.

“Your demands have made an impact on the budget,” he said.

Services such as electricity and water are in short supply in Baghdad, and are one of the key grievances of protesters.

Sistani and Sadr, who both issued statements through their spokesmen, called on Iraqis to stay home. Sistani expressed concerns about security, while Sadr promised to hold demonstrations in six months if services do not improve. Sadr last week had encouraged his followers to demonstrate for better services, which are especially poor in Sadr City, which has over two million inhabitants.

Hasan Kamil, a media professor at Baghdad university, said Sistani and Sadr’s statements would have more impact than Maliki’s promises or security warnings.

“Iraqis know all about security threats,” he said, “and people are sick of promises. They need action.”

“I was planning to participate in Friday’s demonstration with my friends and my neighbours because Sadr City has terrible services and we don’t have jobs,” said Mohammed Ali al-Darraji, a 25-year-old taxi driver. “But when the leader [Sadr] announced that we should give the government six months, we decided not to go.”

Organised via Facebook by a grassroots movement of liberal youth and intellectuals, the February 25 protest had gained impetus through media coverage and street support.

But the movement is far from well-organised, with random groups calling on people to show up at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square after Friday prayers.

Some officials have reported that not all groups have permits to hold demonstrations, and there have been insinuations that opposition groups are paying some organisers.

While united in their call for reform, the various groups have different demands - ranging from improving services, respecting civil liberties to ending corruption - as well as separate Facebook pages. The most popular, The Iraqi Revolution, had nearly 23,000 fans the day before the protest.

Despite opposition from the government, Sistani and Sadr, the demonstration is still likely to attract thousands of secularists, liberals and Sunnis.

Jalal al-Shahmani, a 32-year-old college student and leader of the Free Thinking Youth activist group in Baghdad, said he wanted to see more jobs, improved services and a better quality of life for poor Iraqis. He said he expected his group to mobilise at least 5,000 people “who are liberals and have no political or sectarian affiliation” and expects tens of thousands of protesters in total.

“I told my group and the people I mobilised to dress well, wear a nice cologne or perfume and hold a flower,” he said. “We want to show the world that an Iraqi man who was planting bombs can change his mind and hold a flower.”

Government officials maintained that they support the people’s right to protest but are concerned about their safety.

Security officials said they will ban vehicles with broadcasting equipment from entering the demonstration area and warned of possible attacks including car bombs, suicide bombers, snipers and assassins with silencers.

But protesters won’t be scared off by security fears, Shahmani said, because “they have gotten used to people getting killed”.

“There are people who are too desperate not to protest,” said Ihsan, a Baghdad resident who plans to attend the event with 60 to 70 people and asked that his family name not be used. “They have nothing else to do but demonstrate. Some of them hold degrees, but they can’t find good jobs. They can hardly make ends meet. We were in war under the former regime, and now corruption is ruining us. Where is all of our money? Where are our resources?”

Some of the organisers hope that the demonstrations will bring together secularists and Islamists to push for reform.

Sarmad al-Taei, editor-in-chief of the influential Alam newspaper, said Islamists and liberals could ally to advocate for reform, and agreed on most issues except those related to personal freedoms.

Abu al-Qasim al-Taei, an independent Shia cleric, who is mobilising support for the demonstrations, said he would also attend the protest despite the warnings. He said some devout Muslims need convincing about the legitimacy of protesting, “They are not aware of their constitutional right to demand that elected officials fulfil their promises.”

Reporting by IWPR Iraq editors Abeer Mohammed and Hazim al-Sharaa. Journalists Farah Ali and Emad al-Sharaa contributed to this report.

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