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.”


Darfur victims say for sake of peace Bashir must face ICC

Updated 20 October 2019

Darfur victims say for sake of peace Bashir must face ICC

  • Jamal Ibrahim saw his sisters get raped by militiamen in Darfur

CAMP KALMA: For Jamal Ibrahim, whose sisters were raped by militiamen in Darfur, only the handover of Sudan’s ousted dictator Omar Al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court can bring peace to the restive Darfur region.
“Two of my sisters were raped in front of my eyes by militiamen who stormed through our village, setting our houses on fire,” Ibrahim, 34, told AFP at Camp Kalma, a sprawling facility where tens of thousands of people displaced by the conflict in Darfur have lived for years.
“Bashir and his aides who committed the crimes in Darfur must be handed over to the ICC if peace is to be established in the region.”
Ibrahim, who is from Mershing in the mountainous Jebel Marra area of Darfur, said his village was attacked by Arab militiamen in March 2003 soon after conflict erupted in the region.
The fighting broke out when ethnic African rebels took up arms against Khartoum’s then Arab-dominated government under Bashir, alleging racial discrimination, marginalization and exclusion.
Khartoum responded by unleashing the Janjaweed, a group of mostly Arab raiding nomads that it recruited and armed to create a militia of gunmen who were often mounted on horses or camels.
They have been accused of applying a scorched earth policy against ethnic groups suspected of supporting the rebels — raping, killing, looting and burning villages.
The brutal campaign earned Bashir and others arrest warrants from The Hague-based ICC for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
About 300,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in the conflict, the United Nations says.
Bashir, who denies the ICC charges, was ousted by the army in April after months of nationwide protests against his ironfisted rule of three decades.
He is currently on trial in Khartoum on charges of corruption, but war victims like Ibrahim want the ex-leader to stand trial at the ICC, something the northeast African country’s new authorities have so far resisted.
Ibrahim said his father and his uncle were shot dead when militiamen, riding on camels, rampaged through their village.
“We fled from there... and came to this camp. Since then we have not returned to our village,” Ibrahim told an AFP correspondent who visited Camp Kalma last week.
Established near Niyala, the provincial capital of South Darfur state, Camp Kalma is one of the largest facilities hosting people displaced by the conflict.
It is a sprawling complex of dusty tracks lined with mud and brick structures, including a school, a medical center and a thriving market, where everything from clothes to mobile phones are sold.
Hundreds of thousands of Darfur victims live in such camps, subsisting on aid provided by the UN and other international organizations.
In Camp Kalma, hundreds of women and children queue up daily to collect their monthly quota of food aid.
“Often the officials here tell us that we must return to our village, but we can’t because our lands are occupied by others,” said a visibly angry Amina Mohamed, referring to Arab pastoralists who now occupy large swathes of land that previously belonged to people from Darfur.
“We won’t accept any peace deal unless we get back our land. We will leave this camp only when those who committed the crimes are taken to the ICC.”
Even as instances of violence in Darfur, a region the size of Spain, have fallen in recent years, there are still regular skirmishes between militiamen fighting for resources and livestock.
Sudan’s new transitional authorities have vowed to bring peace to Darfur and two other conflict zones of Blue Nile and South Kordofan.
A Sudanese delegation led by generals and government officials is currently holding peace talks in the South Sudan capital of Juba with two umbrella rebel groups that fought Bashir’s forces in these three regions.
On Wednesday, the chief of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, announced a “permanent cease-fire” in the three regions to show that authorities are committed to establishing peace.
But residents of Camp Kalma are not convinced, with hundreds of them staging a protest against the talks in Juba.
Musa Adam, 59, who hails from the village of Dilej but has lived in Camp Kalma for years, is in no mood to forgive Bashir.
Seven members of his family were shot dead by militiamen when they raided his village in 2003, Adam said.
“I know those militia leaders... I am ready to testify at the ICC against them as a witness to their crimes,” he said.
“Until these criminals are taken to the ICC, we cannot have peace in Darfur.”