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Middle East
Tensions flare in Iraq rallies
Thousands gather in Baghdad and northern Iraq demanding improved services and an end to corruption and food scarcity.
Last Modified: 25 Feb 2011 03:47 GMT
Protesters demand an end to corruption, shortages of food and power and replacement of local officials [Reuters]

Hundreds of Iraqis have converged on Baghdad's Liberation Square as part of an anti-government rally named the Day of Rage, organised mainly through the social networking website Facebook.

About 2,000 protesters are said to have already gathered on Friday, which comes after weeks of scattered protests around the country calling for an end to corruption, shortages of jobs, food, power and water.

Iraqi army helicopters buzzed overhead, while trucks took up posts throughout the square, where a groups of protesters shouted ``No to unemployment,'' and ``No to the liar al-Maliki,'' referring to Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said that a violent standoff was happening between protesters and police.

The protests also stretched from the northern city of Mosul to the southern city of Basra, reflecting the widespread anger many Iraqis feel at the government's seeming inability to improve their lives.

A crowd of protesters in the northern city of Hawija, 240km north of Baghdad, tried to break into the city's municipal
building, according to Ali Hussein Salih, the head of the local city council.

That prompted security forces to fire into the air.

"We had given our instructions to police guards who are responsible for protecting this governmental building not to open fire, only if the demonstrators broke into the building," he said.

Three demonstrators were killed and 15 people wounded, according to Fattah Yaseen, the Hawija police chief.

In Mosul, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the provincial council building, demanding jobs and better services, when guards opened fire, a police official said.

A police and hospital official told the Associated Press that two protesters were killed and five people wounded.

Thousands demonstrate

Black smoke could later be seen billowing from the building.

While in the south, a crowd of about 4,000 people demonstrated in front of the office of Governor Sheltagh Aboud al-Mayahi in the port city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, located 550km southeast of Baghdad.

They knocked over one of the concrete barriers and demanded his resignation, saying he had done nothing to improve city services.

They appeared to get their wish when Major General Mohammad Jawad Hawaidi, the commander of Basra military operations, told the crowd that the governor had resigned in response to the demonstrations.

State television announced that the prime minister asked the governor to step down but made no
mention of the protests.

Around 1,000 demonstrators also clashed with police in the western city of Fallujah, located 65km west of Baghdad, witnesses said.

The demonstrations have been discussed for weeks on Facebook and in other Internet groups, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

While demonstrations in other Middle Eastern countries have focused on overthrowing governments, the protests in Iraq have centered on corruption, the country's chronic unemployment and shoddy public services
like electricity.

"We want a good life like human beings, not like animals," said Khalil Ibrahim, a protester in Baghdad.

Recent protests

Like many Iraqis, he railed against a government that locks itself in the highly fortified Green Zone, home to the parliament and the US. embassy, and is viewed by most of its citizens as more interested in personal gain than public service.

"The government of the Green Zone is terrified of the people's voice,'' he said.

Iraq has seen a number of small-scale protests across the country in recent weeks. While most have been peaceful, a few have turned violent and at least seven people have been killed.

The biggest rallies have been in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, 260km northeast of Baghdad, against the government of the self-ruled region.

But Iraqi religious and government officials appeared nervous over the possibility of a massive turnout for Friday's rally, and have issued a steady stream of statements trying to dissuade people from taking part.

On the eve of the event, Nouri al-Maliki urged people to skip the rally, which he alleged was organised by groups loyal to former ruler Saddam Hussein, and al-Qaeda.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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