After decades of instability, Iraq seemed to be catching a break: jihadists were defeated, violence plummeted, checkpoints were removed. Buoyed by hope, Umm Zeina persuaded her son not to emigrate.

Hussam had been considering joining his sister in the United States, but last year Umm Zeina made the case to stay.

"I told him not to go because we felt good, life was getting better and better, and we were forgetting the fear and the explosions," she told AFP.

All that changed earlier this month, when deadly protests seemed to drag Iraq out of its reverie and back into its dark days.

From October 1-6, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in Baghdad and across the south to protest rampant corruption, mass unemployment and failing public services.

They railed against an entrenched political class that they blamed for staggering inequality: one in five people live below the poverty line in OPEC's second-largest oil producer.

But they were met with a volley of tear gas and gunfire that ultimately left 157 people dead, according to the government, which acknowledged "excessive force" was used.

Fresh anti-government rallies broke out on Thursday, with hundreds descending onto the streets of Baghdad
Fresh anti-government rallies broke out on Thursday, with hundreds descending onto the streets of Baghdad AFP / -

"The fear came back," said Umm Zeina.

Compounding her worries of renewed violence was a broader concern that Iraq would be destabilised by the spiralling tensions between its two main allies, the United States and Iran.

'We feel lost'

Fresh anti-government rallies broke out on Thursday, with hundreds descending onto the streets of Baghdad. Larger protests are expected on Friday.

Amjad, 21, is bracing himself for difficult days after he had capitalised on Iraq's brief respite from violence to open a small shop in the capital's centre.

"Things were getting better in recent months. But this month, with the protests and security situation, we fell far short," Amjad told AFP.

"What's coming in Iraq will be much worse," he predicted.

Iraq has been hard-hit by decades of instability, including war with Iran in the 1980s, a devastating international embargo in the 1990s and the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Several years of sectarian violence followed before the Islamic State group swept across the country in 2014 and seized nearly a third of it -- just as oil prices dropped.

The scene in Tahrir Square ahead of larger protests expected Friday
The scene in Tahrir Square ahead of larger protests expected Friday AFP / -

Iraq faced a devastating economic crisis as its troops fought IS, finally declaring victory in late 2017.

Young people across the country thought they could finally hit restart -- including Youssef Ibrahim, now 27.

"When I felt things were improving after IS's defeat, I opened a mobile telephone store and got married to have a life like everybody else," he told AFP.

"But with the current events, we feel lost. I don't know if opening the shop or getting married were good ideas."

'Edge of the abyss'

For many in Iraq, the end of IS and recovering oil prices should have brought reconstruction and investment to alleviate poverty and unemployment across the country.

Indeed, the trade minister had promised mega-projects funded by global investors, but those plans never materialised -- something Iraqis have blamed on large-scale corruption, favouritism and incompetence.

Iraq is considered the 12th most corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International.

A parliamentary report earlier this year found that $450 billion (410 billion euros) of public funds had been lost to graft and corruption since 2003.

Meanwhile, reconstruction remained slow and the already large population was set to further grow and reach 50 million before 2030.

These factors, strained by an unemployment crisis facing recent university graduates, ignited this month's protests.

Hussein, 54, said his fellow Iraqis were so consumed by day-to-day needs that they could hardly afford the home appliances he peddles in central Baghdad.

"People are looking for things to eat, not for things to furnish their homes," he told AFP.

Many protesters have been unimpressed by the government's pledged reforms, and analysts fear they do not target the root causes of Iraq's infrastructural challenges.

"People are desperate: they've been strangled by poverty, unemployment, poor planning while listening to politicians' empty promises," said Ahmed, who graduated with a degree in engineering but works in a furniture store.

"Life's hard and it's getting worse. We're living on the edge of the abyss -- God knows how it'll turn out."