BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Five blasts across Baghdad on Saturday 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 war-time 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 Shi‘ite neighborhood and improvised explosives devices planted in a bustling central market district, underscoring the peril ordinary people still face from militant violence in Baghdad.
Bombings have waned and waxed for nearly 12 years, but they have not ceased since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
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 Islamic State, the militant group which seized large areas of northern and western Iraq last year.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shi‘ite Islamist 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 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.”
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 midnight (1600 ET) to 5 a.m. 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.
The curfew has become a fact of life in Baghdad, as have the towering gray 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 specified districts and some checkpoints closed.
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 night club 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.”
Additional reporting by Ned Parker; Editing by Gareth Jones and David Gregorio