BAGHDAD A government ban on protests on the streets of the capital has led some Iraqis to question their leaders' commitment to democracy and the rule of law.
Thousands of Iraqis, encouraged by uprisings around the Arab world, have taken to the streets in recent months to press for better basic services and an end to corruption.
But a government edict last week, restricting rallies in Baghdad to its two main sports stadiums, is being seen as unconstitutional and has raised questions over the government's ability to meet protesters' demands.
"The government is swinging away from democracy. Banning protests and locking demonstrators inside a stadium is illegal and unconstitutional," said Ali al-Fredawi, an activist with the '15th of March Movement' which helped coordinate recent rallies in Baghdad.
"The government decision clearly shows its fear of mounting rage among Iraqis at the blundering performance of (Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki's government," he added.
Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, a spokesman for the armed forces' commander-in-chief, said protests were restricted to al-Shaab and al-Zawraa stadiums for economic reasons.
"Shop owners in Baghdad complained that recent protests started to affect their work and therefore we decided to ban protests on the streets and in commercial areas," he said.
Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and led eventually to free elections, Iraqis are frustrated over shortages of water, electricity, food rations and jobs.
Politicians have tried to calm their anger by giving out free power supplies and diverting money from fighter jets to food rations. In February, Maliki gave ministers 100 days to step up reforms.
Unlike other countries in the region where protesters are calling for an end to autocratic regimes, Iraqis have not tried to change their elected government, formed in December.
Protests in Baghdad, which started in February and take place mainly on Fridays in central Tahrir Square, have been consistent but have dwindled in size since at least 10 people were killed in nationwide demonstrations on February 25.
Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadr bloc is part of the government, criticized the ban. "The government pretends to be democratic and that is contradictory," he said in a written response to a follower.
Haider al-Mulla, an Iraqiya party lawmaker, agreed.
"The constitution is clear on guaranteeing the right to demonstrate. This limitation from the government ... proves that the government doesn't have the ability to meet the demands of the Iraqi people," he said.
Maliki secured a second term as premier in December after months of wrangling between Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni factions.
His government and that of Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region have been criticized for harsh crackdowns on protests causing scores of casualties. Amnesty International said Iraqi police and soldiers have used excessive force in their attempts to stifle the protests.
So far the government has not enforced the ban. Protesters gathered in Tahrir Square last Friday and security forces did not arrest them.
"We will not use force against protesters who refuse to abide by this decision," said Moussawi, Maliki's security spokesman. "But we will try to make them understand that closing off roads and bridges will affect commercial and trade activities in Baghdad."
(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; editing by Tim Pearce)