Jules Witcover

While the eyes of the White House are glued on the popular upheavals in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, another regional outburst that threatens to be an American embarrassment has been unfolding in the U.S. client state in Iraq.

In Baghdad and other population centers, another "Day of Rage" late last week brought thousands into the streets charging the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and local officials across the country with corruption and failure to provide electricity and other services.

According to the reputable Economist magazine and other sources, demonstrators tore down parts of a wall blocking a bridge from Tahrir Square in Baghdad to the fortified Green Zone that houses the parliament on other government offices. Riot police were turned loose on the mob, using water cannons and live ammunition to dispel it, with as many as 29 deaths reported.

Prior to the announced demonstration, Maliki had warned that pro-Baathist and al-Qaida elements would be involved. But other observers challenged the contention. An Iraq historian at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Reidar Visser, wrote on the Iraq Business News site that "the striking aspect" of the demonstrations "was their national character."

Kurds criticized the Kurdish parties, Shiites were "challenging the hegemony of Maliki's 'all-Shiite' alliance" and Sunnis were rallying against local Sunni politicians, Visser wrote. In these protests in recent weeks across Iraq, he said, "in terms of slogans and demands, there are signs of a true synthesis of genuine nationwide opposition to the supposed 'government of national partnership' " formed only last December.

Observing that the Maliki regime "is in crisis," he wrote that protests "could induce more Iraqi politicians to think carefully about the virtues of taking part in a government that seems to care more for itself than the Iraqi people." Under attack, he went on, "are some of the very principles underlying the deal-making that led to the formation of the current government, despite its so-called 'democratic' facade."

At the same time, Reuters reported that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, regarded as the ostensibly nonpolitical but most influential cleric in Iraq, called on the Maliki regime to address more forcefully the popular allegations of official corruption, as well as the need for jobs and electric service, at the core of the protest. Also, observers from Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into the use of force against the demonstrators.

Among about 300 people rounded up and arrested by Iraqi security forces, according to The Washington Post, were journalists who had covered the Tahrir Square demonstration. It quoted four who were subsequently released saying they had been handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with execution by soldiers from an army intelligence unit. The Post also reported that a Baghdad television station had been shut down by security forces who also arrested key broadcast personnel.

On the day after the "Day of Rage," the Post said, an armed attack by insurgents on the largest oil refinery in Iraq in the city of Baiji, about 125 miles north of Baghdad, killed four guards and an engineer. The refinery was shut down to repair damages from a detonated bomb.

Because the peaceful demonstration in Baghdad was not aimed at overthrowing the Maliki regime but rather to pressure it to clean up corruption in its ranks and provide promised utility services, the use of Iraqi security forces to quell it had to be an embarrassment to the Obama administration, which is training and financing them.

When President Obama declared the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq complete last August, he said American non-combat personnel would remain to finish the training of Iraqi army, police and security elements but would be out by the end of this year. The employment of Iraqi security forces to repress and even attack peaceful demonstrators against the Maliki regime's shortcomings presents persuasive ammunition to critics of any continued American involvement with that regime.

Walking away from Iraq after nearly eight years of controversial U.S. engagement in Iraq, and the long attempt install a democratic state there, is proving to be a messy and trying coda to the whole calamitous foreign policy misadventure.


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