Thousands of followers of an influential Shiite cleric breached Iraq’s parliament for the second time this week on Saturday, protesting efforts to form a government led by a coalition of groups backed by their rivals, Iran. The coalition called for retaliatory protests, raising fears of civil strife.
Iraqi security forces initially used tear gas and sound bombs to disperse the protesters, and many were injured. Once inside, the protesters staged an open dharna, claiming that they would not disperse until their demands were answered.
As the numbers increased inside Parliament, the police withdrew. The expected session of Parliament did not take place on Saturday and there was no MLA in the hall. As of late afternoon, the health ministry said around 125 people had been injured in the violence – 100 protesters and 25 members of security forces.
Earlier in the day and at the call of cleric Muktada al-Sadr, protesters used ropes to pull down cement barricades leading to the gates of Iraq’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and embassies.
Al-Sadr has resorted to using his large grassroots level as a pressure tactic against his rivals, as his party was unable to form a government despite winning the largest number of seats in the federal elections held last October. .
With neither side willing to accept it, and with al-Sadr intent on derailing efforts to form a government led by its rivals, Iraq’s limbo and political paralysis has ushered in a new era of instability in the beleaguered country .
Al-Sadr has used his followers as leverage against his rivals and ordered him to take over parliament on previous occasions – in 2016, his followers did the same during Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s administration. Just did it.
Now, with Iraq in the tenth month since the last elections, the political vacuum is shaping up to be the longest since the US-led 2003 invasion to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein reset the country’s political system. .
Later on Saturday, al-Sadr’s rivals in the coordination framework – a coalition of Shia parties backed by Iran – called on their supporters to hold “peaceful” counter-protests to defend the kingdom, a statement from the group said. . The call raises fears of potential massive street fighting and bloodshed, unseen since 2007.
“Civil peace is a red line and all Iraqis must be prepared to defend it by all possible, peaceful means,” the coalition said.
The United Nations expressed concern about further instability and called on Iraqi leaders to de-escalate tensions. “The ongoing growth is deeply concerning. Voices of reason and wisdom are vital to preventing further violence. All actors are encouraged to reduce tensions in the interest of all Iraqis,” the United Nations said.
Meanwhile, al-Sadr supporters – many who had come not only from Baghdad but also from other provinces to protest – continued to occupy the parliament building, occupying the parliament floor and the Iraqi flag and portrait of al-Sadr. Pick it up , They raised slogans against the infiltration of foreign states, a veiled reference to Iran.
This is the second time in a span of four days that the cleric has ordered his followers to present their side inside the green zone. Protesters stormed the parliament building in a similar fashion on Wednesday, but left shortly after entering on al-Sadr’s orders.
Wednesday’s force majeure came after al-Sadr’s rivals took a step forward in their efforts to form a government by nominating Mohamed al-Sudani as their candidate for premiership.
Iraq’s acting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Saturday instructed security forces to protect the protesters and asked them to keep their protest peaceful, according to a statement. Inside the Parliament building, security forces became less intense and many people were seen sitting and chatting with the protesters.
Some protesters started moving from Parliament to the Judicial Council building.
“We have come today to dismantle the corrupt political class and prevent them from holding parliament sessions and from forming the government,” said 41-year-old Raad Thabet. “We answered the call of al-Sadr.”
Al-Sadr’s party pulled out of government formation talks in June, requiring them to proceed with the process in order to give a majority to their rivals in the Coordination Framework Coalition.
Many protesters wore black to mark the days leading up to Ashura, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most important figures of Shia Islam. Al-Sadr’s message to his followers has used the important day in Shia Islam to incite protests.