HILLA: HELLA HORDE
The demonstrators converged on the provincial governor’s office on Sunday with banners, sleeping mats, cooking pots and a simple demand: Iskander Jawad Witwit should quit.
After three days and nights of continuous protests, Witwit did just that. But the demonstrators have refused to budge.
As soon as Witwit resigned, the local representative of the U.S. occupation authority appointed a former Iraqi air force officer as acting governor. To the protesters, that was unacceptable. The new governor, they insisted, should be chosen not by an American but by Iraqis — through an election.
“Yes, yes for elections!” shouted the protesters, a collection of students, clerics and middle-aged professionals whose ranks swelled to more than 1,000 on Thursday. “No, no to appointment!”
The protesters have pledged to continue their sit-in outside the governor’s office — they have erected tents and dug latrines — until their demand is met. Leaders of Hilla’s largest labor unions have vowed to hold a general strike starting Saturday in support of elections.
Local leaders described the passionate but peaceful demonstration in this predominantly Shiite Muslim city as a preview of what U.S. occupiers will face if they follow through with a plan to select a provisional Iraqi government through regional caucuses instead of general elections. Although elections have become an increasingly popular rallying cry in Shiite-dominated central and southern Iraq, the protest here is the first indication that mainstream Shiites are willing to take to the streets to press the issue, adding a volatile new element to the country’s impending political transition.
While this looks like a setback, it strikes me as a pretty good sign, really. If this was indeed a spontaneous demonstration, it means there is a sizable portion of the populace with the gumption to govern. That’s what democracy is all about, no? One hopes this spirit will sustain itself even when Iraqis are in charge. Saddam had a powerful enough suppression apparatus that civil disobedience would have been suicide; these people are unlikely to allow that to happen again.