BAGHDAD – Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Iraqi cities on Saturday to protest lawmakers’ perks despite an intense security crackdown.
Protest organizers demanded an end to what they claim are generous pension benefits granted to members of parliament. Demonstrators also aired long-standing grievances about widespread corruption and the poor state of public services.
Iraqi lawmakers are entitled to monthly pension payments of several thousand dollars per month regardless of how long they serve – far more than the amounts government employees and private sector workers typically get after decades of work. Many Iraqis suspect the country’s 325 lawmakers in parliament are in politics only for the money, and they accuse them of being ineffective and slow to address the country’s myriad problems.
Authorities did not grant permission for the demonstrations in the capital, drawing criticism from rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Security forces blocked bridges and deployed large numbers of rifle-toting soldiers and police in major squares – an extraordinary show of force that protesters said was mainly taken to prevent demonstrators from congregating in larger numbers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim defended the security operation, saying authorities were concerned suicide bombers might try to attack the rallies. He insisted authorities had no problem with the demonstrations and that his forces were present only to protect protesters.
One of the Baghdad protest organizers, Mohammed Abbas, said he was beaten by security forces as he and his colleagues were trying to reach the central Tahrir Square. He declared the day’s protests a success despite the low turnout and pledged to mount more demonstrations.
Outside the capital, hundreds of people demonstrated in the southern city of Basra, where one banner declared: “The resources of Iraq are for Iraqis, not the lawmakers.” Protests were also reported in Nasiriyah and Hillah, also in the country’s mainly Shiite south.