Mourners carry the Iraqi flag-draped coffin of a protester, during his funeral in the central Iraqi city of Najaf in October 2019. Picture: AFP/HAIDAR HAMDANI
Mourners carry the Iraqi flag-draped coffin of a protester, during his funeral in the central Iraqi city of Najaf in October 2019. Picture: AFP/HAIDAR HAMDANI

Baghdad — Calm prevailed in Iraq on Wednesday after a week of antigovernment protests left dozens dead, prompting the US to call on the country’s government to exercise “maximum restraint”.

In Baghdad — the second-most populous Arab capital — normal life has gradually resumed since Tuesday. Traffic has again clogged the main roads of the sprawling city of 9-million inhabitants. Students have returned to schools, the reopening of which was disrupted by the violence.

On Tuesday, security restrictions were lifted around Baghdad’s Green Zone, where government offices and embassies are based.

Iraq descended into violence last week as protests that began with demands for an end to rampant corruption and chronic unemployment escalated with calls for a complete overhaul of the political system.

The demonstrations were unprecedented because of their apparent spontaneity and independence in a deeply politicised society.

Protesters were met with teargas and live fire. On Sunday night scenes of chaos engulfed Sadr city, the Baghdad stronghold of influential Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who called for the government to resign.

At least 13 demonstrators died in Sadr City, where the military recognised “excessive force outside the rules of engagement” had been used.

According to official figures, the week of violence in Baghdad and across southern Iraq killed more than 100 people, mostly protesters, with more than 6,000 others wounded. Uncertainty over the identities of the perpetrators persists, with authorities blaming “unidentified snipers”.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo condemned the violence on Tuesday. During a call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, he said “those who violated human rights should be held accountable”, the state department said in a statement.

“The secretary lamented the tragic loss of life over the past few days and urged the Iraqi government to exercise maximum restraint.” Pompeo reiterated that peaceful public demonstrations are a fundamental element of all democracies, and emphasised that there is no place for violence in demonstrations, either by security forces or protesters.

While calm has returned to the country, uninterrupted internet access has not.

Cybersecurity NGO NetBlocks blamed the state for imposing “a near-total telecommunication shutdown in most regions, severely limiting press coverage and transparency around the ongoing crisis”.

Internet access has been progressively limited for a week. First access to certain social media sites disappeared, followed by internet connections for telephones, computers and even virtual private network (VPN) applications.

Since Tuesday, connection has intermittently returned to Baghdad and the south of the country. During these short reconnections, social media sites were accessible via a VPN connection, and images of protesters killed during marches began to be shared.

On Wednesday, the connection remained unreliable. Providers told customers they were unable to provide a timetable for a return to uninterrupted service, information on restrictions, or any other details.

Iraqi authorities have not commented on the restrictions, which according to NetBlocks affected three-quarters of the country. In the north, the autonomous Kurdish region is unaffected.

The tentative calm returning to Baghdad comes ahead of Arbaeen, the huge pilgrimage in October when millions of Shiite Muslims walk to the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.

Nearly 2-million came in 2018 from neighbouring Iran, which has urged citizens to delay their travel into Iraq in light of the protest violence.

Its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Monday “enemies” were trying to drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad, in an apparent allusion to the protests.

The demonstrations and accompanying violence have created a political crisis in a country torn between its two main allies — Iran and the US.

With political rivals accusing each other of allegiance to foreign powers, President Barham Saleh called Monday for “sons of the same country” to put an end to the “discord”.

He called for a “national, all-encompassing and frank dialogue ... without foreign interference”.

AFP