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Baghdad cracks down on protests as Iraq democracy falters

Over the weekend, Iraq’s government banned protests against the lavish pensions given to lawmakers, in the latest evidence that Iraqi democracy has struggled to take root.

Many Iraqis are worried that democracy, never firmly rooted here, is sliding away from their country. On Saturday, Iraq’s security forces stopped demonstrators from protesting against the parliament’s pension program, which activists say is excessive. In Baghdad, police closed off several main roads and bridges to stop protesters from reaching designated gathering places.

Despite the prohibition, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in several cities where protest leaders say police beat and arrested some participants. Iraqi officials said they forbade the protests because a large gathering would have been susceptible to a terrorist attack.

“We were expecting big support from the government, because we saw the government on the media in favor of pension reforms, but instead, they beat some of our friends and arrested them. It’s shocking,” says Akeel Ahmad, a protester who could not reach the demonstration due to police checkpoints.

The ban on Saturday’s protests is the latest evidence of growing authoritarianism in Iraq. Sectarian politics appears to be on the rise once more, and the government has become increasingly intolerant of dissent. The failure of democracy here would cast an even darker shadow over the nearly nine-year US military presence, which was sold as an effort to build a democratic country. 

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“The democratic system is in danger and it’s in a state of continuous deterioration,” says Jaber al-Jaberi, a member of parliament who supports reform of the pension program. “Protesting is a constitutional right for everyone and it doesn’t require any permits from anyone.”

Frustrations with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki‘s government have been growing since at least the parliamentary elections in 2010. Ayad Allawi’s political bloc won by a narrow margin, defeating Mr. Maliki’s bloc by just two seats, but political coalition-building returned power to Maliki. The settlement left many Iraqis disheartened and feeling like the office of prime minister had been stolen from Mr. Allawi.

As protests kicked off throughout the Arab world in 2011, Iraq was no exception, with thousands of demonstrators coming out to voice frustration with government corruption and poor services. Although Maliki pledged not to run for a third term in 2014 in an effort to allay concerns, police violently broke up protests, killing dozens of demonstrators.

Two and a half years later, Iraqi officials still appear concerned about demonstrations. The Iraqi Constitution, which is often ignored in matters of policy, theoretically guarantees freedom of assembly. There are no clear laws determining who has the authority to provide demonstrators with a permit. Officials at the Ministry of Interior recently remarked that they have the sole power to grant such permits; this assertion is not supported by any known laws, according to Human Rights Watch.

Organizers for last weekend’s protests applied for a permit with the Ministry of Interior but were denied. Some government officials claimed they supported the protesters’ demands, but could not allow demonstrations that lacked permits.

“The protesters didn’t follow the orders of the Ministry of Interior and they broke the rules, so the security forces had to take into consideration such violations. We will respond to all protest demands and resolve them soon,” says Khalid Al-Asadi, a member of parliament.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticized the government’s decision and called on authorities to allow peaceful demonstrations. Human Rights Watch wrote that the government’s “concern seems that protests will be politically embarrassing or inconvenient,” rather than an honest fear of violence.

The organizers of Saturday’s protest say they will challenge security measures to exercise their right to freedom of speech.

“People are fed up with the situation 10 years after the invasion. Iraq is moving backward, not forward. People are disappointed with the government,” says Ahmad Ibrahim, one of the organizers.

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Strengthening Iraqi democracy was a key component of the American-led reconstruction effort after the 2003 invasion. Of the slightly more than $60 billion spent on Iraq’s reconstruction, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s final report described “securing and stabilizing a new democracy in Iraq and helping its economy grow” as the “foundational rationales” of the overall US effort.

By September 2012, the US had spent $1.82 billion on programs directly related to democratic governance and civil society.

“The Americans really did not do the things that should be done. When we speak about the democratic system, it is not only going to vote and to put your voice on the ballot paper. This is not enough,” says Hanaa Edwar, a human rights and civil society activist in Baghdad. “How to respect human rights in this country is the core issue for democracy. It is also how to make dialogue with everyone, how to accept others. The Americans didn’t put the basis for that.”