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.”


US to pull last troops from north Syria

Updated 1 min 3 sec ago

US to pull last troops from north Syria

  • The developments illustrate Washington’s waning influence over events in Syria
  • Turkey aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main element of US’s Kurdish-led ally the Syrian Democratic Forces

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT: The United States said on Sunday it will withdraw its remaining 1,000 troops from northern Syria in the face of an expanding Turkish offensive while Syria’s army struck a deal with Kurdish forces to redeploy along its border with Turkey, both major victories for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The developments illustrate Washington’s waning influence over events in Syria and the failure of the US policy of keeping Assad from reasserting state authority over areas lost during the more than eight-year conflict with rebels trying to end his rule.
The developments also represent wins for Russia and Iran, which have backed Assad since 2011 when his violent effort to crush what began as peaceful protests against his family’s decades-long rule of Syria exploded into a full-blown civil war.
While the US withdrawal moves American troops out of the line of fire, the return of Syrian soldiers to the Turkish border opens up the possibility of a wider conflagration should the Syrian army come in direct conflict with Turkish forces.
The Turkish onslaught in northern Syria has also raised the prospect that Daesh militants and their families held by the Kurdish forces targeted by Turkey may escape — scores were said to have done so already — and permit the group’s revival.
The remarkable turn of events was set in motion a week ago when US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw about 50 special operations forces from two outposts in northern Syria, a step widely seen as paving the way for Turkey to launch its week-long incursion against Kurdish militia in the region.
Turkey aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main element of Washington’s Kurdish-led ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key US ally in dismantling the “caliphate” set up by Daesh militants in Syria.
Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said the offensive would extend from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east and extend some 30 kilometers into Syrian territory, with the town of Ras al Ain now in Turkish control.
US Defense Secretary Mike Esper said the United States decided to withdraw its roughly 1,000 troops in northern Syria — two US officials told Reuters it could pull the bulk out in days — after learning of the deepening Turkish offensive.
It was unclear what would happen to the several hundred US troops at the American military outpost of Tanf, near Syria’s southern border with Iraq and Jordan.
Another factor behind the decision, Esper indicated in an interview with the CBS program “Face the Nation,” was that the SDF aimed to make a deal with Russia and Syria to counter the Turkish onslaught. Several hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had struck just such an agreement for the Syrian army to deploy along the length of the border with Turkey to help repel Ankara’s offensive.
The deployment would help the SDF in countering “this aggression and liberating the areas that the Turkish army and mercenaries had entered,” it added, referring to Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, and would also allow for the liberation of other Syrian cities occupied by the Turkish army such as Afrin.
The fighting has sparked Western concerns that the SDF, holding large swathes of northern Syria once controlled by Daesh, would be unable to keep thousands of militants in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.