Calm returns after Iraq protests but political crisis remains

Baghdad (AFP) –


Iraq woke up Tuesday from its first quiet night after a week of anti-government protests that left dozens dead and sparked a crisis its president said required a "national dialogue".

Morning traffic around the city was back to normal, most streets had reopened and an internet blackout in place for most of the past week appeared to ease just hours before parliament was expected to meet.

His voice sometimes breaking during a televised address, President Barham Saleh appealed for "sons of the same country" to put an end to the "discord" that has reigned since protests erupted one week ago.

They began in Baghdad, with young demonstrators demanding an end to rampant corruption and chronic unemployment but then escalated with calls for a complete overhaul of the political system spreading to the Shiite-dominated south.

They were unprecedented because of their apparent spontaneity and independence in a deeply politicised society, but have also been exceptionally deadly -- with more than 100 people killed and 6,000 wounded since Tuesday.

Saleh said those responsible for the violence were "enemies of the people" and proposed a cabinet reshuffle, more oversight to stamp out corruption, and a "national, all-encompassing and frank dialogue? without ?foreign interference.?

Saleh was not the first to suggest a way out of the political crisis. Embattled Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi and parliament speaker Mohammed Hal-Halbusi have both proposed a laundry list of reforms to address popular grievances.

But protesters have repeatedly told AFP they had "nothing left to lose", and have scoffed at overtures by political and religious figures.

- Lawmakers boycott -

Parliament is scheduled to meet later on Tuesday to discuss the protests, but expectations were slim as the body failed to reach a quorum three days ago.

Those boycotting included its largest bloc, the 54 MPs led by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who threw his weight behind the demonstrations last week.

When the protest movement first erupted, young, mostly male Iraqis gathered in the emblematic Tahrir (Liberation) Square, but security forces began closing off roads to the traditional gathering place and squeezed the protests further east.

They were eventually confined to the densely populated, chaotic district of Sadr City -- Sadr's stronghold.

On Sunday night, rallies there left at least 13 people dead after they escalated into clashes with troops.

The army acknowledged using "excessive force" and said they would hold commanding officers accountable.

In videos distributed on social media, protesters could be seen ducking into streets littered with burning tyres as volleys of gunfire and suspected heavy weapons were heard.

It was the first time security forces acknowledged using disproportionate force, a step cautiously welcomed by Amnesty International.

"The security forces' admission of using excessive force is a first step that must be translated on the ground, to rein in the behaviour of security forces and the army," it said on Monday.

"The next step is accountability."

The particularly chaotic scenes in Sadr City followed several days of witnesses reporting security forces unleashing tear gas and live rounds to disperse protests while authorities said "unidentified snipers" shoot at both protesters and police.

More footage is expected to emerge online once internet access fully returns across Iraq, where authorities have restricted access since Wednesday night.

The internet has been briefly restored during official speeches broadcast on state television ?- including Saleh's address on Monday night ?- but has been cut again afterwards.

The tentative calm returning to Baghdad comes a few weeks ahead of Arbaeen, the massive pilgrimage that sees millions of Shiite Muslims walk to the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.

Nearly two million came last year 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 Monday "enemies" were trying to drive a wedge between Tehran and Baghdad, in an apparent allusion to the protests.

The sentiment was echoed hours later by the powerful Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force, which warned that those who sought to "defame Iraq will be punished".