The response of the Maliki government to the plans has been threatening:
Al-Maliki, whose government has been in place for only two months in his second term, affirmed the right of Iraqis to protest peacefully but said he had evidence that insurgents and Baathists planned to take advantage of the demonstrations for their own purposes.
However, he gave no proof for his assertion made in a nationally televised speech on Thursday.
“I call on you…not to take part in tomorrow’s protest because they are suspicious,” al-Maliki said. “I call on you to be cautious and careful and stay away from this (event).”
As the Washington Post notes:
Organizers had hoped the nationwide event would inject a fresh concept into the exercise of Iraq’s fledgling democracy: peaceful expression of discontent. Instead, the lead-up to the big day – when protesters plan to demand a better government, not a new one – has been defined by anxiety and the increasingly familiar features of Maliki’s bare-knuckle governing style.
… On Wednesday, hundreds of soldiers and police began fortifying Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, checking IDs and photographing the smattering of protesters who had begun unfurling banners reading “No to bribes!” and “The oil money is for the people!”
… Soldiers began setting up checkpoints blockading many Baghdad neighborhoods.
Near midnight Thursday, a red banner flashed across state television broadcasts announcing the curfew, a draconian measure more often deployed to deal with insurgent attacks.
Along with these warnings and curfew, protesters were beaten earlier this week in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square while officials looked on and there’s more evidence of the government is attempting to block participants from reaching the demonstration sites. Haleema Al-Azzawi reports that the government has ordered Army and police to block all buses coming from Anbar saying “This action is part of preparations for Iraqi forces to contain demonstrations on 25 February .”
On Thursday, government forces also arrested Muntazer al-Zaider:
The Iraqi journalist who shot to fame for throwing a shoe at former US president George W Bush was detained on Thursday while attempting to hold a news conference in Baghdad, an AFP reporter said.
Muntazer al-Zaidi had been due to hold a press conference in front of the Iraqi capital’s Abu Hanifa mosque in the mostly-Sunni district of Adhamiyah when an Iraqi army unit took him away.
“I have orders for you to come with me,” an army colonel told Mr Zaidi, who initially refused, demanding to see a written arrest warrant. He was eventually led into an army pick-up truck along with his brother Durgan.
Durgan al-Zaidi told AFP before the news conference that his brother intended to add his voice to calls for a major protest in Baghdad for Friday.
The government also raided offices of several of the NGOs involved in Friday’s planning. [cont'd.]
According to Abdus-Samad two organizers were arrested in Salah ad Din in advance of the day of protest and Burhan Aydin reports that government forces also attacked the Baghdad offices of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory.
The Christian Science Monitor has this description of the JFO attack:
In the small offices of the Iraqi Journalistic Freedoms Observatory in central Baghdad, the locks on the doors had been broken, hard drives removed from computers, and furniture overturned after Iraqi security forces entered the building overnight.
Project manager Bashar al-Mandalawy says the security guard who reported the break-in said Iraqi soldiers in Humvees had turned up at about 2 a.m., smashing the locks and then removing laptops, other computer equipment, cameras, and paper files.
“The only reason behind this is to stop freedom of the press and expression in this country,” says Mr. Mandalawy. On the weekend, an independent television station in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya was set on fire and heavily damaged in apparent retaliation for airing footage of antigovernment demonstrations in the Kurdish city.
From Sulimaniya in Kurdistan, were protests have been growing, Shorsh Khalid reports that:
Intellectuals, writers, opposition members of parliament, women, clerics and civil society advocates have joined the crowds, in stark contrast to the waves of young men who took to the streets last week. Several rallies have also been held at universities and schools.
“We will continue demonstrating,” said Awat Mohamed, coordinator at the Civil Society Federation, an umbrella body for 14 non-governmental organisations. Protest organisers, he continued, are coordinating with demonstrators in several towns in Sulaimaniyah province.
“Corrupt officials must be dismissed from their jobs and brought to justice,” Mohamed said.
Opposition to the demonstrations is not limited to Maliki. Moqtada al Sadr returned from his studies in Iran to call for a delay in protests while a national survey is held to measure the state of people’s access to food and services as well as their possible support for demonstrations. Saba Ali Iihsan notes that the very call for the referendum:
has already served to remind the GZG politicians that their complete failure to improve the lot of the average Iraki is eroding their legitimacy far more importantly it is eroding the legitimacy of the system imposed by the Americans after the invasion.
Grand Ayatollah Sistani has also called for people to skip the demonstration but even with this caution, large numbers across the religious and sectarian spectrum are expected.
The Obama administration, which has consistently been reluctant to support democracy movements across the Middle East only to finally issue weak comments of “concern,” has had no comment at all about the planned demonstrations and demands of the Iraqi people.