Authorities lift Baghdad curfew – Sadr bloc boycotts parliamentary session

BAGHDAD: Renewed protests took place under live fire in Iraq’s capital and the country’s south yesterday as the government struggled to agree a response to days of rallies that have left nearly 100 dead. The largely spontaneous gatherings of demonstrators – whose demands have evolved since they began on Tuesday from employment and better services to fundamental government change – have swelled despite an Internet blackout and overtures by the country’s elite.


Among the 94 dead across the country since Tuesday, 55 were killed in Baghdad while 250 others in the capital were treated for sniper wounds, the Iraqi parliament’s human rights commission said. Nearly 4,000 people have been wounded since the protests began in Baghdad and spread to cities across the south, it added. Yesterday, dozens gathered around the oil ministry in central Baghdad, facing live rounds fired in their direction, an AFP photographer said.


Thousands also descended on the governorate buildings in the southern cities of Diwaniyah – where gunfire was unleashed into the air – and in Nasiriyah, AFP correspondents said. A curfew in Baghdad had been lifted yesterday morning. Parliament had been due to meet at 1:00 pm (1000 GMT) but could not reach quorum, after firebrand cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr’s bloc of 54 lawmakers and other factions boycotted the session.
The former militia leader threw his weight behind the demonstrations on Friday with a call for the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi. Sadr’s movement has the power and organization to bring large numbers of supporters onto the streets, but at the risk of alienating many of those whose protests in recent days have been based on rejecting all of Iraq’s feuding political factions. Parliamentary speaker Mohammad Al-Halbusi had extended a hand to protesters saying “Your voice is being heard”, and he had been hoping to discuss job creation and social welfare schemes with lawmakers in the session.


But the mainly young, male protesters have insisted their movement is not linked to any party or religious establishment and have scoffed at the recent overtures by politicians. “These men don’t represent us. We don’t want parties anymore. We don’t want anyone to speak in our name,” said one protester late Friday. Abu Salah, a 70-year-old resident of Baghdad with wispy white hair and a matching beard, said the streets would be full until Iraqis saw real change. “If living conditions don’t improve, the protests will come back even worse,” he told AFP.


The protests have presented the biggest challenge yet to the Iraqi premier, who came to power a year ago as a consensus candidate promising reforms but whose response to the demonstrations has been seen as tepid. “Abdel Mahdi should have come forward with decisive changes, like the sacking of leading politicians accused of corruption,” said Iraqi analyst Sarmad Al-Bayati.


Political and religious rifts run deep in Iraq, and protests are typically called for by party or sect – making the last five days exceptional, said Fanar Haddad an expert at Singapore University’s Middle East Institute. “This is the first time we hear people saying they want the downfall of the regime,” Haddad said.


Sadr, a former militia leader turned nationalist politician, demanded on Friday that the government resign to clear the way for a fresh election supervised by the United Nations. His bloc is the largest in parliament, and his intervention sets the scene for a possible showdown with the speaker, who has made his own bid to make political capital out of the protests. Calling yesterday’s parliamentary session, Halbusi pledged he would “take off his suit jacket and be the first among the protesters”, if he did not see the government improve living conditions.


Abdel Mahdi appealed on Friday for more time to implement his reform agenda in a country plagued by corruption and unemployment after decades of conflict. “There are no magic solutions.” But his pleas for patience appear to have underestimated the intensity of public anger. Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani used his weekly prayer sermon to urge authorities to heed the demands of demonstrators, warning the protests could escalate unless clear steps are taken immediately. Sistani has repeatedly acted as final arbiter of the politics of Iraq’s Shiite community, which dominates the government. – AFP