BAGHDAD – Iraqi security forces detained about 300 people, including prominent journalists, artists and lawyers who took part in nationwide demonstrations Friday, in what some of them described as an operation to intimidate Baghdad intellectuals who hold sway over popular opinion.
On Saturday, four journalists who had been released described being rounded up well after they had left a protest of thousands at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. They said they were handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution by soldiers from an army intelligence unit.
“It was like they were dealing with a bunch of al-Qaeda operatives, not a group of journalists,” said Hussan al-Ssairi, a journalist and poet who described seeing hundreds of protesters in black hoods at the detention facility. “Yesterday was like a test, like a picture of the new democracy in Iraq.”
The Iraq protests were different from many of the revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in that demonstrators were calling for reform, not for getting rid of the government. Their demands ranged from more electricity and jobs to ending corruption, reflecting a dissatisfaction with government that cuts across sectarian and class lines.
Yet the protests were similar to others in that they were organized, at least in part, by middle-class, secular intellectuals, many of whom started Facebook groups, wrote and gave interviews supporting the planned demonstrations.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who only recently formed a fragile governing coalition that is supported by the United States, was apparently concerned about the protest billed as Iraq’s “Day of Rage.” Leading up to Friday, he ordered a curfew on cars and urged Iraqis to stay home, as a government spokesman warned of “terrorists” who might use “sniping and silencer pistols” to target crowds. Security forces raided a prominent journalist watchdog group involved in organizing the protest.
Despite that, tens of thousands of Iraqis turned out for the protests, which began peacefully but degenerated as forces fired water cannons, sound bombs and live bullets to disperse crowds.
The death toll rose to at least 29 Saturday, as officials reported that six more protesters, including a 14-year-old boy, died from bullet wounds. The deaths were recorded in at least eight places, including Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit.
Ssairi and his colleagues had joined the protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, some wrapping themselves in white sheets in a sign of peace. As the sun set, helicopters swooped down into the crowd, signaling the start of the crackdown.
Around 4 p.m., Aldiyar TV manager Fiysal Alyassiry, who had broadcast the demonstrations, reported that security forces had attacked the station, beat a worker, arrested seven people including a director and an anchorman, and closed the station.
About the same time, Ssairi and his colleages were sitting at an open-air restaurant two miles from the square. According to interviews with him and several others, two Humvees pulled up and about a dozen camoflauge-clad soldiers stormed inside.
They descended upon the table where Hadi al-Mahdi, a journalist and theater director, was sitting with three friends and began beating them.
“We said, ‘What are you doing – we’re journalists!’ ” Mahdi said.
They loaded them into the Humvees, drove them to a side street, where they beat them again. Then, blindfolded, they were driven to a place Mahdi later recognized as the former Defense Ministry building, which houses an intelligence unit of the army’s 11th Division.
Inside, they heard soldiers laughing and chanting “Maliki liar!” – mocking a slogan some protesters had shouted. Mahdi said he was taken to a room alone, and soon, he was being beaten with sticks, boots and fists. They took his shoes off, wet his feet and administered electric shocks to them.
In between, the soldiers interrogated him, he said. They accused him of being a tool of outsiders wishing to topple Maliki’s government. He told them that he’d been a member of Maliki’s Dawa party until he recently became disillusioned.
“They said, ‘You’re Dawa?’ ” Hadi said. “Then I realized they were totally stupid.”
A soldier accused him of being a traitor and beat him some more. And then Hadi, who comes from a prominent family, was told he and his colleagues would be released, the result of friends who made some well-placed phone calls.
Just before they were freed, however, Hadi was held in a room where about 300 people sat on the floor. They had black hoods over their heads. Many were groaning, their shirts bloodied. An elderly man had passed out.
“This government is sending a message to us – to everybody,” Hadi said Saturday, his forehead bruised, his left leg swollen.
Gathered at a house in the afternoon, Hadi’s colleagues told similar stories. Many said that despite their treatment, they considered the protest successful.
“It’s put pressure,” said Raad Mushatat, a filmmaker who was not detained. “The government is scared. But they do not scare me anymore.”