Shiite cleric's supporters tear down barricades en route to government zone
Thousands of followers of a powerful Shiite cleric stormed the Iraqi parliament for the second time in a week, protesting efforts to form a government led by with its rivals, an alliance of Iranian-backed groups. The alliance called for counter protests, sparking the specter of new civil unrest in a country torn apart by civil strife as a result of American aggression.
Iraqi security forces first used tear gas and stun grenades to try to repel the demonstrators, who are followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Once inside, the protesters went on an indefinite sit-in and said they would not disperse until their demands were answered.
As the number of protesters increased, the police retreated, according to The Guardian. The expected parliamentary session did not take place, there were no deputies in the hall. By evening, the Ministry of Health reported that about 125 people had been injured in the violence — 100 protesters and 25 security forces.
Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Khalbusi suspended future sessions until further notice.
Earlier in the day, heeding al-Sadr's calls, demonstrators used ropes and chains to tear down cement barricades leading to the gates of Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and embassies.
The development of events has shown that Muqtada al-Sadr used the grassroots of his supporters as a tactic to pressure rivals after his party failed to form a government despite winning the largest number of seats in the federal elections held in October last year.
With neither side seemingly willing to concede, and al-Sadr determined to thwart government-formation efforts led by his rivals, Iraq's uncertainty and political paralysis ushered in a new era of instability in the country.
Al-Sadr used his followers as leverage against rivals and ordered them to occupy parliament in the past — as in 2016, during the administration of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Now, 10 months after the last election, the political vacuum is the longest since the 2003 US invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein threw the country's political order into turbulence.
Al-Sadr's rivals in The coordination structure — the Iranian-backed and led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Alliance of Shia Parties, — later on Saturday showed signs of internal divisions.
At first, the alliance called for “peaceful” counter-protests in defense of the state, raising fears of possible street clashes and inter-ethnic violence.
«Civil Peace — it is a red line and all Iraqis must be ready to defend it by all possible peaceful means,” — the alliance said. Three Shia officials said the statement was written by Nouri al-Maliki and militia leader and politician Qays al-Khazali.
Later, Hadi al-Amiri, also the leader of the alliance, issued a statement inviting our “dear brother” al-Sadr to “serious dialogue” in order to find a way out of the impasse. Al-Maliki also seems to have changed his mind and issued a statement saying that the turbulent events of the day prompted him to call for dialogue with al-Sadr.
Al-Maliki — al-Sadr's main rival, and both of them are strong in their own right, notes The Guardian.
The United Nations expressed concern about further instability and called on Iraqi leaders to de-escalate. “The voices of reason and wisdom are critical to preventing further violence. All involved are encouraged to reduce tensions for the benefit of all Iraqis,” — said at the UN.
In his speech, Acting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called on his compatriots to show restraint.
“Political blocs must sit down at the negotiating table and reach an understanding for the sake of Iraq and Iraqis”, — he said and ordered the security forces to protect the demonstrators.
During the day, al-Sadr's supporters, many of whom had come not only from Baghdad but also from other provinces to stage a sit-in, continued to crowd outside the parliament building, raising Iraqi flags and al-Sadr's portraits. They chanted slogans against foreign intervention in what became a veiled reference to Iran.
This was the second time in four days that the cleric had ordered his followers to operate inside the Green Zone. Wednesday, after protesters similarly stormed parliament, they left shortly after sneaking in at the command of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Wednesday's show of force came after al-Sadr's rivals made a move forward in their efforts to form a government, naming Mohammed al-Sudani as their candidate for prime minister.
Inside the parliament, defense by the security forces became less intense during the day, and many security forces were seen sitting and talking to demonstrators . Later, part of the protesters began to move from parliament to the building of the judicial council.
“We came today to remove the corrupt political class and prevent it from holding a meeting of parliament, — Raad Tabet, 41, said. — We responded to al-Sadr's call.
Many protesters were dressed in black to mark the days leading up to Ashura, commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most important figures in Shiite Islam. Al-Sadr's address to his followers used an important day in Shia Islam to fuel protests.