Death toll climbs as Iraq unrest hits Baghdad’s volatile Sadr City

Smoke rises from burning tyres during as Iraqis demonstrate against state corruption, failing public services and unemployment, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on October 5, 2019. (File/AFP)
Updated 08 October 2019

Death toll climbs as Iraq unrest hits Baghdad’s volatile Sadr City

  • At least 110 people killed in week of unrest
  • Protesters want prime minister and government removed

BAGHDAD: Protesters began gathering in Baghdad’s Sadr City district late on Monday after overnight clashes with security forces spread to the vast, poor swath of the Iraqi capital for the first time killing 15 people.
The night of violence pushed the death toll after a week of unrest to 110 people. They were mostly protesters demanding the removal of the Iraqi government and overhaul of its political class, as security forces carried out a heavy-handed crackdown on demonstrators.
The spread of the violence into Sadr City on Sunday night poses a new security challenge for authorities dealing with the worst violence in the country since the Daesh group was defeated nearly two years ago.
Unrest is historically difficult to put down in Sadr City, a volatile district where about a third of Baghdad’s 8 million people live in narrow alleys, many with little access to electricity, water and jobs.
Things were quieter on Monday. The military withdrew troops and handed over patrols of the district to federal police early in the day, an indication authorities want to avoid clashes with supporters of the powerful opposition cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr who has called for the government to step down.
A Sadr City resident reached by phone told Reuters that the streets were calm during the day. Local militiamen were coming to inspect damage and police were deployed around the district’s neighborhoods.
The uprising over the past week has abruptly ended two years of relative calm unseen in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Many Iraqis, especially young people, say entrenched government corruption means they received no benefit from returning stability after years of foreign occupation and sectarian civil war.
Critics say the government’s fierce response to the protests has inflamed public rage.
Reuters journalists have witnessed protesters being killed and wounded by snipers from the security forces firing into crowds from rooftops though the interior ministry denies government forces have shot directly at protesters.
The Internet was restored on Monday afternoon, after being shut down across the country for days. But the communications vacuum allowed discontent to spread.
“The crackdown plus the Internet blackout are angering people and it won’t calm the situation,” Jassim Al-Hilfi, a lawmaker from the bloc of Moqtada Al-Sadr, who is boycotting parliament, told Reuters.
“People will not be silenced, and the politicians are not capable of meeting their demands.”

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President Barham Salih, whose role is normally above the day-to-day political fray, condemned attacks on protesters and the media, and called for an investigation into the violence.
“Our security forces, in its various forms, must defend and support the people,” Salih said in televised remarks. “They must firmly confront those who violated the constitution by attacking citizens and the security forces, and terrorizing the media.”
In his address, he also called for ministerial changes and electoral reforms to address protesters’ grievances, adding that those affected by the violence this week should be compensated.
Demonstrators have been calling for “the downfall of the regime,” echoing demands in Arab Spring protests that swept across the Middle East in 2011. It is unclear how their demands could be met by the powerful Shiite religious parties that have dominated the country since Saddam’s fall and show no sign of willingness to relinquish control.
Those parties control armed militia which gained influence in the war against Daesh. They also have strong backing from Iran, creating a potential international dimension to the crisis in a country that is a client and ally of both Tehran and its biggest foe, Washington.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted on Monday: “#Iran and #Iraq are two nations whose hearts & souls are tied together. ... Enemies seek to sow discord but they’ve failed & their conspiracy won’t be effective.”
The protests began spontaneously in Baghdad and southern cities, without public support from any major political faction in Iraq.
They have since spread to other areas, mainly populated by members of the Shiite majority. The unrest poses an unprecedented challenge for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who took office last year as a consensus candidate of the Shiite parties.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Abdul Mahdi in a phone call that he trusted the Iraqi forces and supported the Iraqi government in restoring security, a statement from the prime minister’s office said.
Abdul Mahdi said life had returned to normal, according to the statement. The government has offered to spend more money on subsidized housing for the poor, stipends for the unemployed and training programs and loan initiatives for youth.
Iraqi authorities said they would hold to account members of the security forces who “acted wrongly” in the crackdown on protests, state TV reported.
The ministry also said authorities condemned all attacks against media outlets, after reports of raids at the offices of several local and international news outlets. Iraq’s National Union of Journalists condemned the attacks, and the harassment and arrests of journalists covering the protests.
The protests precede Arbaeen, a Shiite pilgrimage when as many as 20 million worshippers trek on foot through southern Iraq in the world’s biggest annual gathering, 10 times the size of the Makkah Hajj. Iran reopened a border crossing used by pilgrims which had been shut last week.


Will Turkey abide by provisions of Berlin Summit?

Updated 37 min 25 sec ago

Will Turkey abide by provisions of Berlin Summit?

  • Expert says sudden end to Ankara’s intervention in Libyan conflict unlikely

JEDDAH: With the conclusion of the Libya peace summit in Berlin on Sunday, it remains to be seen whether Turkey is willing to implement the provisions of the final communique and stay out of the conflict.

Ankara is accused of sending Syrian fighters to the Libyan battlefront in support of Fayez Al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) against military commander Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

During the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron voiced concerns over the arrival of Syrian and other foreign fighters in Tripoli, saying: “That must end.” 

Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst at Oxford University, speculates that Turkey will not deploy more troops.  

But he told Arab News that a sudden end to Ankara’s intervention in the Libyan conflict is unlikely for the moment as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country will remain present “until the GNA’s future is secured.”

Noting the difficulty of enforcing the Berlin agreement, Ramani said Turkey might not be the first mover in breaching a cease-fire in Libya.

But he added that Turkey will not hesitate to deploy forces and upend the agreement if Haftar makes any moves that it considers “provocative.”

The summit called for sanctions on those who violate the UN Security Council arms embargo on Libya.

Turkish opposition MPs recently criticized the expanded security pact between Ankara and the GNA, saying the dispatch of materials and equipment to Libya breaches the UN arms embargo.

Until we see what specific cease-fire monitoring and enforcement mechanisms will be implemented and by which foreign powers, we don’t know what arrangements, if any, have been agreed upon.

Micha’el Tanchum, Analyst

The summit does not seem to have resolved ongoing disputes regarding the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline, a planned natural gas pipeline connecting eastern Mediterranean energy resources to mainland Greece via Cyprus and Crete.

The Cypriot presidency accused Turkey of being a “pirate state,” citing Ankara’s recent drilling off its coasts just a day after Brussels warned Turkey that its plans were illegal.

Erdogan dismissed the warning and threatened to send to the EU some 4 million refugees that Turkey is hosting.

Turkey dispatched its Yavuz drillship to the south of Cyprus on Sunday, based on claims deriving from the maritime delimitation agreement with the GNA.

Turkey’s insistence on gas exploration in the region may be subject to sanctions as early as this week, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels on Monday.

Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based political analyst, drew attention to Article 25 of the Berlin final communique, which underlined the “Libyan Political Agreement as a viable framework for the political solution in Libya,” and called for the “establishment of a functioning presidency council and the formation of a single, unified, inclusive and effective Libyan government approved by the House of Representatives.”

Sezer told Arab News: “Getting approval from Libya’s Haftar-allied House of Representatives would be a serious challenge for Ankara because Haftar recently considered all agreements with Turkey as a betrayal. This peace conference once more showed that Turkey should keep away from Libya.”

Many experts remain skeptical about the possible outcome of the summit. 

Micha’el Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, said: “Until we see what specific cease-fire monitoring and enforcement mechanisms will be implemented and by which foreign powers, we don’t know what arrangements, if any, have been agreed upon.”