Iraqis Celebrate Nighttime Curfew Lift Despite Persisting Violence

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Iraqis celebrate on February 8, 2015, the lift of curfew in central Baghdad. AFP\Ali al-Saadi

Published Sunday, February 8, 2015

Iraqis roared through central Baghdad Sunday in dozens of cars flying flags, honking horns and filling the street with smoke from their screeching tyres to celebrate the end of a years-old nightly curfew, a day after a wave of bombings killed at least 37 people and wounded several others.

"Long live Iraq,” one young man shouted while hanging out the window of a passing car early on Sunday morning.

It was the first night in years that Baghdad residents could stay out as late as they wished, after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered an end to the long-running curfew that had most recently lasted from midnight to 5:00 am.

Iraqi officials reported Thursday that Abadi has ordered an end to a years-old nightly curfew in Baghdad in a bid to ease restrictions on daily life despite persistent violence, a decision his spokesman said was taken so there would "be normal life as much as possible, despite the existence of a state of war.”

While most residents stayed at home, some chose to mark the occasion in a more lively fashion.

Young men made up the majority of the revellers, many of them driving American muscle cars with big engines and loud exhausts, but some families also turned out to celebrate by driving when they previously could not.

Security forces members who once stopped drivers out past curfew instead stood by and watched the show, though one young man fell afoul of the authorities for performing a burnout outside a hotel in his Dodge Challenger, the tyres shrieking and spilling smoke as they spun around.

After being chastised, he sped away, turned around and proceeded to repeat the manoeuvre on the other side of the street.

Dozens of drivers parked in a long line on one side of Jadriyah bridge, with some young men dancing to music blaring from speakers in their cars.

The gathering was organized over Facebook to celebrate the end of the curfew, said Ali Majid Mohsen, a student driving a silver Dodge Charger with an Iraqi flag flying from one side.

On Karrada Dakhil, a main shopping street in central Baghdad, a group of men sat smoking water pipes in front of a cafe after midnight.

"Before, we felt like we were in prison," said Faez Adbulillah Ahmed, the owner of the cafe, adding "We were restricted."

"We would have to leave by 11:30 pm... to reach the house by twelve," he said. Now, "we will be free to stay."

Down the street, a group of young men stood smoking cigarettes in front of a clothing store.

"We were waiting for this decision for years," shop owner Marwan Hashem said of ending the curfew.

Before, "when it was midnight, we would never stay out in the street," he said.

Lifting the curfew is a major change to a longstanding policy aimed at curbing violence by limiting movement at night in the capital, which has witnessed a devastating number of suicide bombings since the 2003 US invasion.

Since the invasion, Iraqi authorities have imposed a nighttime curfew which saw several changes over the years, the most stringent one being in 2006 after a major bombing killed more than 150 people. The curfew was then set from 8:00 pm till 6:00 am.

The curfew did little to prevent the deadly bombings that plague Baghdad, which militants carry out during the day or in the early evening to maximize casualties.

But now, Iraqis are at least able to move more freely.

Walid al-Tayyib walked down Karrada Dakhil after midnight with his young nephew, which he could not have done just a night before.

"What do we feel today? We feel all the difference," he said.

"Now, thank God, we are going out with the kids enjoying ourselves," he added.

Abadi, who took office in September, has struggled to develop a broad support base.

Improving quality of life in Baghdad could represent a small but tangible achievement as he seeks to turn back the tide against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group while mending rifts between polarized sectarian communities that have stoked violence.

"This will benefit us greatly, because we have felt imprisoned for the past 11 years," a shopper in the central Karrada district said hours before the curfew was set to end.

"This is the bravest decision that Haider al-Abadi has taken. This shows that the country is somewhat safe," he added.

Ending the curfew and "demilitarizing" several neighborhoods is part of a campaign to normalize life in Iraq's war-blighted capital. Officials hope to demonstrate that Baghdad no longer faces a threat from ISIS.

The curfew has become a fact of life in Baghdad, as have the towering grey blast walls around many buildings and checkpoints that have curtailed commercial and civilian movement.

Residents often complain of having to wait in long lines of traffic at checkpoints on major roads and at the entrances to many neighborhoods, while politicians' convoys speed through the city with armed guards.

Last week's decisions mean heavy weapons will be banned from specific districts and some checkpoints closed.

Although some Baghdad residents welcomed the decision for the increased freedom of movement it brings, others are worried it could allow criminals and militias to step up attacks.

Residents awaited the end of the curfew on Saturday evening with a mixture of anticipation and fear.

The bombings earlier in the day and in recent weeks reinforced fears among some that the end of the curfew would spark more attacks.

"You can see that things are not as good as before. Bombings are coming back," said Anwar, 25, a shop owner in Shourja, near the site of Saturday's market blast.

A former soldier in the eastern Adhamiya district criticized the decision to lift the curfew, saying it would give criminal gangs more freedom to operate.

"They couldn't control them at day, what about night-time?" he said, declining to be named.

Others, though still cautious, were taking advantage of having one of Baghdad's many restraints eliminated.

"Removing the curfew is bad because it strains the security forces and we have to be more alert now," said a volunteer paramilitary fighter outside a nightclub on the banks of the Tigris River.

"I'm taking my leave now so I come here for a few hours of relief and to forget that I have to go to work again," he added.

However, Interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said he did not believe Saturday's explosions were linked to the government's decision this week to lift the curfew on Saturday at midnight.

Security forces pressed ahead with plans to end the curfew, setting up mobile checkpoints to forestall bombings and criminal acts like kidnapping, which has became more common since last summer.

Five blasts across Baghdad on Saturday, however, tempered Iraqis' anticipation of a more relaxed and accessible capital as the government prepared to lift a night-time curfew that has kept the city on a wartime footing for more than a decade.

At least 37 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the explosions, security and medical sources said, and dozens of others were wounded.

The attacks included a suicide bombing at a restaurant in a Shia neighbourhood and improvised explosives devices planted in a bustling central market district, underscoring the peril ordinary people still face from militant violence in Baghdad.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast, which was one of the deadliest to hit the capital in months.

While the hardline ISIS jihadist group has not advanced into Baghdad, it holds a ring of towns around the capital and has claimed responsibility for a series of bombings in several districts of the city.

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said the city worst affected by violence was the capital, Baghdad, with 256 civilians killed and 758 wounded. UNAMI said in a statement that violence in Iraq has killed at least 1,375 people, including 790 civilians, in the month of January alone.

Since ISIS emerged in its current form in 2013, it has captured large swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq.

It has since declared an Islamic "caliphate" in territory under its control, and gained a reputation for brutality, including executions and torture.

In early August, the Kurds joined the battle against ISIS after the group took control of the country's largest dam and moved within striking distance of Erbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region, making the city a more prominent target for militants.

Despite the successful advances against ISIS, the Iraqi army and pro-government fighters still face major challenges in the battle against the jihadist group, which holds large areas of the country, including the key cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah.

Bombings in the capital have waned and waxed for nearly 12 years, but they have not ceased since the US invasion to topple autocrat Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Since then, the country became in a constant state of turmoil and chaos.

According to the Australia and US-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) report in November last year, Iraq ranked first out of 162 countries on the Global Terrorism Index, with a score of 10 out of 10.

IEP reported that 80 percent of the lives lost to "terrorist" attacks in 2013 occurred in just five countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria.

The influx in "terrorist" attacks raises questions about the effectiveness of the US "War on Terror" launched by the American administration after the 9/11 attacks, which included the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the contrary, the campaign in general and the US invasion of Iraq in particular served as a recruitment tool for terrorist groups, such as ISIS, as figures show that terrorism rose precipitously in Iraq since 2003.

The anti-ISIS campaign, which is led by the US since August, almost three years after the US finally retreated from Iraq, is similarly facing doubts of its effectiveness.

Critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with the militants have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering rebels in Syria and Libya.

A study published in September 2014 by the London-based small-arms research organization Conflict Armament Research revealed that ISIS jihadists appear to be using US military-issued arms and weapons supplied to the “moderate” rebels in Syria by Saudi Arabia.

The report said the jihadists disposed of "significant quantities" of US-made small arms including M-16 assault rifles and included photos showing the markings "Property of US Govt."

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)


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