BAGHDAD, (AP) – Iraq’s prime minister warned his people to boycott a planned anti-government protest scheduled for Friday, saying it was being organized by supporters of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gave no proof for his assertion in a nationally televised speech Thursday, which echoed similar statements he’s made blaming terrorists and Saddam loyalists for an array of problems in the country.
His comments were the strongest to date on demonstrations slated to take place across Iraq that have been described as a “Day of Rage” on Facebook and in Internet postings calling for people to take part in the event.
Al-Maliki’s warning was another sign of the worry Iraqi officials feel that the uprisings demanding regime change in many parts of the Middle East will buffet Iraq as well.
So far, Iraqis have held some small-scale protests around the country — occasionally punctuated by violent clashes between security and demonstrators — demanding better public services, more assistance for widows and orphans and greater protection for human rights. But unlike protests in the wider Middle East, they have generally not called for a complete change in government. Iraq is one of the few countries in the region where officials are democratically elected.
“I call on you to be cautious and careful and stay away from this (event),” al-Maliki said of Friday’s march.
He said that he did not want to deprive Iraqis of their right to protest legitimate demands, but wanted it to happen with someone other than “Saddamists, terrorists and al-Qaeda” standing behind the march.
“Frankly speaking, they are planing to take advantage of tomorrow’s demonstration for their own benefit,” he said.
Earlier Thursday, the Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush was forcibly detained by the Iraqi Army after making what is believed to be his first public visit to his homeland after being freed from prison.
One of Muntadhar al-Zeidi’s brothers told The Associated Press that the reporter returned to Iraq to take part in Friday’s rally.
Al-Zeidi became a celebrity in the Arab world after throwing his shoes at Bush during a news conference and calling him a dog. Released from an Iraqi prison after serving a criminal sentence, he eventually left the country in 2009 and has not appeared publicly in Iraq since then.
Witnesses saw al-Zeidi leaving a mosque in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad and then visiting a nearby cemetery. After leaving the cemetery, he was confronted by an Iraqi Army commander backed up by Iraqi Army soldiers who said al-Zeidi should come with them for questioning.
An Associated Press photographer on the scene said the former journalist asked whether he was under arrest and the commander said he was not. A brief discussion ensued, during which al-Zeidi said he did not want to go with the military personnel.
Eventually al-Zeidi was forcibly led away by Iraqi Army soldiers who gripped his arms on either side and escorted him to a waiting Humvee. Iraqi military personnel holding rifles prevented a crowd of photographers from shooting photos of the altercation.