Calm returns to Iraq, as US condemns violence

Protesters rush to an injured protester during a rally in Baghdad. (AP)
Updated 10 October 2019

Calm returns to Iraq, as US condemns violence

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

BAGHDAD: Calm prevailed in Iraq on Wednesday after a week of anti-government 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, whose reopening 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 politicized society.

Protesters were met with tear gas 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 recognized “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 identify 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, Pompeo 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 emphasized 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.”

For a week internet access has been progressively limited. 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 massive pilgrimage this month that sees millions of Muslims walk to the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.

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

Its supre me 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 on 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.”


Will Turkey abide by provisions of Berlin Summit?

Updated 42 min 53 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.”