BAGHDAD (AFP) — A curfew was lifted in Baghdad on Saturday following days of protests which have left nearly 100 dead, but tensions remained after firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded the government quit.
The largely spontaneous protests over chronic unemployment and poor public services that erupted in the capital on Tuesday have escalated into a broader movement demanding an end to official corruption and a change of government.
At least 93 people have been killed and nearly 4,000 wounded, as protests spread to cities across the south, the parliamentary human rights commission said.
Sadr threw his weight behind the demonstrations on Friday with a call for the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.
His movement has the power and organization to bring large numbers of supporters onto the streets, but at the risk of alienating many of those who have taken to the streets in recent days to express their rejection of all of Iraq’s feuding political factions.
Speaker Mohammad al-Halbusi was due to convene a session of parliament session later Saturday to discuss job creation and social welfare schemes, after he too extended a hand to the protesters, saying: “Your voice is being heard.”
In Baghdad on Saturday, municipal workers were out and about cleaning up the rubbish burned by protesters in recent days.
Shoppers trickled back onto the streets to buy vegetables and other perishable goods, the price of which has more than doubled since the deadly protests started.
With the daytime curfew in place since Thursday lifted, demonstrators began gathering near the emblematic Tahrir Square in the morning although many main thoroughfares remained shut and an internet blackout was still in force.
‘We don’t want parties’
The mainly young, male protesters have insisted their movement is not linked to any party or religious establishment and have scoffed at recent overtures by politicians.
“These men don’t represent us. We don’t want parties anymore. We don’t want anyone to speak in our name,” said one protester late Friday.
Abu Salah, a 70-year-old resident of Baghdad with wispy white hair and a matching beard, said the streets would be full until Iraqis saw real change.
“If living conditions don’t improve, the protests will come back even worse,” he told AFP.
The protests have presented the biggest challenge yet to the Iraqi premier, who came to power a year ago as a consensus candidate promising reforms but whose response to the demonstrations has been seen as tepid.
“Abdel Mahdi should have come forward with decisive changes, like the sacking of leading politicians accused of corruption,” said Iraqi analyst Sarmad al-Bayati.
Political and religious rifts run deep in Iraq, and protests are typically called for by party or sect –- making the last five days exceptional, said Fanar Haddad an expert at Singapore University’s Middle East Institute.
“This is the first time we hear people saying they want the downfall of the regime,” Haddad said.
Lawmakers set for showdown
Sadr, a former militia leader turned nationalist politician, demanded on Friday that the government resign to clear the way for a fresh election supervised by the United Nations.
His bloc is the largest in parliament, and his intervention sets the scene for a possible showdown with the speaker, who has made his own bid to make political capital out of the protests.
Calling Saturday’s parliamentary session, Halbusi pledged he would “take off his suit jacket and be the first among the protesters,” if he did not see the government improve living conditions.
Adel Mahdi appealed on Friday for more time to implement his reform agenda in a country plagued by corruption and unemployment after decades of conflict.
“There are no magic solutions,” he said.
But his pleas for patience appeared to underestimate the intensity of public anger.
Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani used his weekly prayer sermon to urge authorities to heed the demands of demonstrators, warning the protests could escalate unless clear steps are taken immediately.
Sistani has repeatedly acted as final arbiter of the politics of Iraq’s Shiite community, which dominates the government.