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U.S. Silent on Deadly Iraqi Gov’t Crackdown on Protests; 300 Arrested in Sweeps Targeting Dissidents

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While the United States has sharply criticized the Libyan government for brutally cracking down on opposition protesters, it has remained noticeably silent on the recent attacks against Iraqi dissidents. On Friday, tens of thousands of people participated in Iraq’s largest protest in years. Although the protests were largely peaceful, authorities fired water cannons, sound bombs and live bullets to disperse crowds as Iraqi army helicopters buzzed overhead, killing an estimated 29 people. Then, on Sunday, U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces detained about 300 people, including prominent journalists, artists and lawyers, who had taken part in the rallies. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: While the U.S. has sharply criticized Libya for brutally cracking down on protesters, it’s remained noticeably silent on the recent attacks against Iraqi dissidents. On Friday, tens of thousands of protesters participated in Iraq’s largest protest in years. They demanded an end to corruption, shortages of jobs, food, power and water.

IRAQI PROTESTER: [translated] We are free, young men, and we do not belong to a certain ideological movement, but we ask for simple legitimate demands that include the right of an education and the right of a decent life. We are educated youths. There are a number of college students among us. The government has stolen our dreams. We are young men without dreams.

AMY GOODMAN: Although the protests were largely peaceful, authorities fired water cannons, sound bombs, live bullets, to disperse the crowds as Iraqi army helicopters buzzed overhead. Officials estimated 29 Iraqis were killed, including a 14-year-old boy. Deaths were recorded in at least eight places across Iraq, including Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit.

Then, on Sunday, U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces detained about 300 people, including prominent journalists, artists and lawyers, who had taken part in the rallies. Four journalists who were later released said the soldiers from an army intelligence unit handcuffed, blindfolded, beat and threatened them with execution. They were held in a room where hundreds of people sat on the floor with black hoods over their heads. Many were groaning, their shirts bloodied.

The crackdown comes on the heels of a Human Rights Watch report that singled out the targeting of journalists as a significant and ongoing problem in Iraq. In addition to journalists, women and detainees are suffering from increased human rights violations.

We turn now to Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi American blogger, political analyst. He’s joining us from Erbil, Iraq. We are also joined by Samer Muscati, an Iraqi researcher at Human Rights Watch. But let’s first go to Raed.

Raed, tell us what’s happened. This day of rage that ended in the deaths of at least 29 people, 300 people arrested?

RAED JARRAR: Where I am now, in Erbil, there was just a very small demonstration in downtown. The Kurdish opposition party called for a demonstration. And there was a counter-demonstration, a pro-Barzani, a pro-government demonstration there. And I witnessed an attack against one of the anti-government protesters. He was beaten very brutally and kidnapped in one of the security cars. Actually, the word on the street is that there were more than a dozen people who were arrested here in Erbil. Of course, Erbil is very safe compared to the rest of Iraq. For example, here in the Kurdish region, there have been massive demonstrations in Sulaymaniyah and in smaller towns in the province of Sulaymaniyah, and in addition to that, other large demonstrations in Kirkuk and around us here, even in Mosul.

I think what has been happening is, for the first time in Iraq’s history, these demonstrations were organized online. Iraq is one of the countries with the least internet penetration in the world. But I think there is a new wave of internet activism. I’ve been following a couple of Facebook pages that have been growing very fast in the last couple of weeks. One of them has more than 30,000 participants now. And they have been discussing political issues there on the Facebook page, organizing the next day of rage.

Now everyone is talking about two demonstrations that will take place, one next Friday and then one next Monday. Monday will be the first anniversary of the Iraqi election. So they’re calling that day the “Day of National Regret.” They’re regretting that they actually gave their votes to these parties that have failed to provide to the Iraqi people.

One last point that I think has been very important today in the press in Iraq is that the government is still incomplete. Nouri al-Maliki has failed to assign the three security ministries to anyone so far. And the rumor today is that the new minister of interior will be Ahmed al-Chalabi. This is the same Ahmed al-Chalabi that brought the U.S. to Iraq based on lies. People are really furious that, after all of what happened, people like al-Chalabi are still being nominated to very highly sensitive positions like the Ministry of Interior. So I think this is adding to the rage and criticism of the Iraqi people all around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a quote from the Washington Post of Hussam al-Ssairi, a journalist and poet. He said, “It was like they were dealing with a bunch of al-Qaeda operatives, not a group of journalists.” He described seeing hundreds of protesters in black hoods at the detention facility and said, “Yesterday was like a test, like a picture of the new democracy in Iraq.”

I want to bring Samer Muscati into this, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. You’ve just come out of Iraq. Can you talk about the situation and how the U.S. is dealing differently with all of these other countries? Looking at a piece from ProPublica making the point that the “State Department briefing discussed Libya, Egypt, Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, Pakistan, Argentina, South Africa and Haiti — Iraq was never discussed.”

SAMER MUSCATI: No, unfortunately, [inaudible] see, the reaction to what happened in Iraq, not only prior to the demonstration but during the demonstration and after the demonstration, I mean, this — what’s happening actually in Iraq, there was a gang of armed men who attacked some journalists in Tahrir Square a few days before the demonstration and then the roundup that you mentioned after, not even talking about the violence that happened during the demonstration. There’s been absolutely no sort of international condemnation or response to what’s happened. And the point is that, regardless of who America’s friends or foes are, the message should be the same, that protesters should be allowed to protest peacefully and the journalists should be allowed to cover events no matter where they are in the world. And we hope that, you know, the Iraqi government would have the same message as the other governments in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this different response? And has Human Rights Watch been talking with the U.S. government? I mean, this is a massive response, 300 people, as well, in particular the targeting of journalists, of writers, of artists. Samer Muscati?

SAMER MUSCATI: As you mentioned, I mean, it’s not just the targeting of the protests, but we just released a — [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Samer Muscati via Skype in Toronto, so we’re having some trouble. It’s freezing a bit. Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. And we’re going to — and we just got him back. Go ahead, Samer.

SAMER MUSCATI: I was saying we just released a report a few days ago that documents abuses against [inaudible]. What we saw after the protest on Friday, unfortunately, you know, it’s not surprising after having interviewed countless of journalists who have faced abuses covering the last elections, journalists who are trying to uncover corruption or other government abuses. Unfortunately, many of them are arrested, harassed, intimidated, detained, and sometimes sued. So there is a culture of impunity, unfortunately, when it comes to journalists and in other groups.

And I think what you mentioned in terms of the detainees at the facility, one of the things that we’ve been monitoring is torture in Iraq. And unfortunately, torture is still routine and widespread among facilities. And detainees who are held routinely complain about abuses they’ve suffered. When we were there just a couple of weeks ago, we uncovered another secret prison in Baghdad run by elite security forces attached to the prime minister’s office, without any accountability. And these forces held detainees incommunicado. Effectively, they’re disappeared. They don’t have no contact with their family, with lawyers, and human rights inspectors are barred from visiting them. So the human rights challenges in Iraq are grave, and unfortunately there hasn’t been a reaction to end these from its international partners.

AMY GOODMAN: And almost no coverage. Your Human Rights Watch report describes, “In the early hours of February 21 dozens of men, some wielding knives and clubs, attacked about 50 protesters who had set up two tents in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square.” That’s right, the same name as in Cairo. “The assailants stabbed and beat at least 20 of the protesters who were intending to camp in the square until February 25, when groups have called for national protests similar to the 'Day of Anger' in Egypt. The attack [coming] directly after the police had withdrawn from the square, and witnesses [suggest] the assailants were in discussion with the police before they attacked.”

SAMER MUSCATI: Absolutely. And I think it’s extremely concerning when these things happen. I think it’s — especially given the police involvement. And some of the people we interviewed who were eyewitnesses at the scene suggest that these armed men were acting in cahoots with Iraqi security forces in the assault that happened. There has been no investigation, which is not unusual for Iraq. But such an event in such a vulnerable place is quite alarming. As you know, in Iraq, there’s a curfew between the hours of 12:00 and 5:00. The fact that these vehicles were allowed to enter the city and downtown, and have access to these protesters, the fact that they stabbed and beat them while the police stood by, is a horrific chain of events that needs to be investigated. So, as I mentioned, it’s not only what happened on Friday, the day of rage, where we saw hundreds of people injured and more than a dozen people killed, but it’s also the actions that have happened before that protest, as well as the subsequent detentions that happened afterward, that’s really concerning.

AMY GOODMAN: Raed Jarrar, we have only a minute left, speaking to us from Erbil. I wanted to ask you about the new White House press secretary, Jay Carney, formerly a journalist, response when asked about the violence against Iraqi demonstrators. He said, “The approach we’ve taken with regard to Iraq is the same that we have taken with regard to the region,” which he said was to call on governments to respond to the protests peacefully. But the U.S. has a very different relationship with the Iraqi military and police. Can you talk about how much power the U.S. has in controlling the situation in Iraq?

RAED JARRAR: Yeah, I think the U.S. does have a lot of leverage over the Iraqi armed forces. The U.S. is not involved on a daily basis anymore. Since I came to the country, I haven’t seen a single U.S. tank or car, because not all of U.S. forces have withdrawn to bases outside. But, of course, I think the present oppression of the Iraqi demonstrators does not fit the image that the Obama administration is trying to draw for Iraq, that it’s a stable and democratic country and that the mission was accomplished. I mean, here in Kurdistan, the situation is really intense. And, for example, today, all the opposition parties withdrew from the local parliament. There are massive sit-in protests in the University of Sulaymaniyah asking for the government here in Kurdistan to resign. So we don’t really see any of these issues being covered by U.S. media or commented on by the White House.

I think, overall, Iraqis want the U.S. to leave. Everyone who I meet wants the U.S. to leave, but not because Iraq has been turned into a democracy and everyone is happy. People want the U.S. to leave because the U.S. is directly and indirectly responsible of the destruction that happened to Iraq and, in fact, responsible for the current corruption and the culture of oppression that Iraq has. So I think that this story does not fit the story that the White House is trying to tell the American people, that we are leaving because our mission has been accomplished.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Raed Jarrar, Iraqi American blogger, political analyst, joining us from Erbil, Iraq. And thank you to Samer Muscati, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, joining us from Toronto, just out of Iraq. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to the protests in the streets of Columbus, Ohio, to Madison, Wisconsin, and we’ll talk about Indiana and Idaho, as well. Stay with us.

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