The first snowfall in more than a decade brought joy to Iraqis, as children threw snowballs at each other and slid down the streets of the capital, Baghdad.

The pristine, white snow blanketing cars and palm trees in an unexpected winter storm Feb. 11 brought some serenity and a brief respite to Iraqis struggling from the political and social crises engulfing the war-weary country.

Rocked by months of anti-government protests, Iraq also has seen tensions mount with the United States following Washington's targeted killing of Iran's top military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, on Iraqi soil Jan. 3.

The incident prompted the Iraq parliament to vote to oust all foreign forces, including about 5,200 American troops deployed in the country to help fight remnants of the Islamic State group and train Iraqi soldiers. However, Washington has said it will not pull the U.S. military out of Iraq.

Tensions over the presence of foreign forces seemed to have eased, but as Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, said Feb 13, the Iraqi government has given the alliance permission to stay in the country.

The protests have led to nearly 550 deaths since the demonstrations erupted in October, according to the semi-official Iraq High Commission for Human Rights.

Protesters have demanded an end to Iranian influence on their political system. They also insist for an end to rampant government corruption, poor public services and unemployment. Supporters of reform are identifying themselves in national terms as Iraqis, rather than as Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Christian or other religious identities.

Cardinal Louis Sako, Chaldean patriarch, has decried the violence as well as the divisions threatening to pull Iraq apart.

Iraq must preserve its "unity in the diversity of its components and their multiplicity," although in recent years, "most political parties have fueled and sharpened sectarianism and fragmentation," Cardinal Sako said in a message in Arabic on the patriarchate website Feb. 7.

Days later, the controversial Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced that he was dissolving his militia group, nicknamed the "blue hats," which have been accused of carrying out deadly attacks on anti-government protesters in recent days. However, Iranian-backed militia snipers also were thought to be behind the deadly shooting down of demonstrators.

The country's top Shiite religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has condemned the violence and insisted that state security forces take the lead in restoring order.

In line with these actions, Iraqi security forces reopened areas in downtown Baghdad Feb. 12, warning that anti-government protests can only go on in Tahrir Square under their protection.

Cardinal Sako repeatedly has appealed to the authorities for Iraqis to be granted rights based on citizenship, rather than their sectarian identity.

In his message, the Catholic leader urged that the "solution to the Iraqi crisis is a secular state founded on citizenship." The "goal is the integration" of the various components of Iraq's rich religious and ethnic mosaic and "service to citizens without distinction of identity," he said.

He reminded people that a rich "mosaic of civilizations, cultures, nationalities, languages and religions" form the basis of modern-day Iraq, which constitutes "a single national and human heritage" and that can be witnessed, and emanates "from the peaceful demonstrators in the public squares."

Cardinal Sako called for Iraq to establish "a secular state" founded on "civil society and not on the church or the mosque because faith does not build a state."

He warned, however, that "one should not fall into the trap of Western secularism" which he said often denies or relegates religion to the background.

Instead, he called on Iraq to become a nation that promotes "justice, equality, respect for individual freedoms, and citizenship rights," while facilitating "integration in a spirit of tolerance and acceptance that encourages renewal and progress."