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Iraq's parliament meets after protests spark political crisis

By AFP - Oct 08,2019 - Last updated at Oct 09,2019

Iraqi police are seen deployed in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite Sadr City on Monday (AFP photo)

BAGHDAD — Iraq's parliament held its first session Tuesday after a week of anti-government protests that left dozens dead and sparked a political crisis the country's president said required a "national dialogue".

Security restrictions were lifted around Baghdad's Green Zone, where government offices and embassies are based.

Morning traffic was at normal levels and an internet blackout in place for most of the past week appeared to ease.

More than 200 parliamentarians arrived for an extraordinary session called by speaker Mohammed Al Halbusi, defying expectations that they would not meet quorum.

MPs hosted several ministers to discuss the demonstrations, which erupted one week ago in Baghdad before spreading to the country's Shiite-dominated south.

The session followed a failed attempt on Saturday, when parliament's largest bloc, including the 54 MPs led by populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, boycotted the session.

Sadr threw his weight behind the protests last week and called on Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi to resign, but the embattled premier has held on and suggested his own string of reforms.

On Tuesday, Abdel Mahdi held marathon meetings with Halbusi, the Cabinet, tribal chiefs, and the country’s top justice over the demonstrations, with his office’s statements insisting life had “returned to normal” after a week of bloody demonstrations.

But it remains to be seen whether Halbusi and Abdel Mahdi’s suggestions would be enough to appease protesters, who have repeatedly said they had “nothing left to lose” and scoffed at overtures by political and religious figures.

 

‘Enemies of the people’ 

 

The demonstrations began with demands for an end to rampant corruption and chronic unemployment but then escalated with calls for a complete overhaul of the political system.

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 in one week.

On Monday night, President Barham Saleh made a televised appeal for “sons of the same country” to put an end to the “discord”.

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”.

When the protest movement first erupted, young, mostly male Iraqis gathered in the emblematic Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

But security forces began closing off roads and the rallies 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 following evening, at least one riot police member was killed, the interior ministry said. 

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.

For the first time, the army acknowledged using “excessive force” in Sunday’s incident and said it would hold commanding officers accountable.

Amnesty International welcomed the admission as “a first step that must be translated on the ground, to rein in the behaviour of security forces and the army”.

“The next step is accountability,” it said.

 

‘Conspiracy theories’ 

 

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” shot at both protesters and police.

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

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”.

In an apparent response, British ambassador Jon Wilks said on Tuesday there was “no need for conspiracy theories”.

“Iraq must protect Iraqis. Using its own national security forces,” he wrote on Twitter.

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