Sadr supporters dig in inside Green Zone, political crisis deepens

Hundreds of supporters of Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed into Baghdad’s Green Zone on Saturday and set up tents beside parliament after Sadr denounced politicians’ failure to reform a political quota system blamed for rampant corruption. The protesters, who had gathered outside the heavily fortified district housing government buildings and many foreign embassies, crossed a bridge over the Tigris River chanting: “The cowards ran away!” in apparent reference to departing lawmakers.

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr storm the Iraqi parliament on Saturday [photo via Reuters, 30/6/2016]
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr storm the Iraqi parliament on Saturday [photo via Reuters, 30/6/2016]

The initial breach was mostly peaceful, but around sunset security forces fired teargas and bullets into the air in an effort to stop more protesters from entering. Around a dozen people were wounded, police sources said.

A United Nations spokesman and Western diplomats based inside the Green Zone said their compounds were locked down. A U.S. embassy spokesman denied reports of evacuation.

Iraqi security personnel and Sadr’s militiamen formed a joint force to control protesters’ movement, a source in Sadr’s office told Reuters. Most protesters had evacuated parliament and some were preparing for a sit-in in its courtyard, he added. An army special forces unit with armored vehicles was dispatched to protect sensitive sites, two security officials said, but no curfew had been imposed.

All entrances of Baghdad were shut “as a precautionary measure to maintain the capital’s security,” another security official said. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has warned that the months-long political crisis prompted by his efforts to overhaul the cabinet could hamper the war against Islamic State, which controls vast swathes of northern and western Iraq.

Earlier in the day, the ultra-hardline Sunni militants claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack against a gathering of Shi’ite pilgrims in the southeastern Baghdad suburb of Nahrawan, killing 19 people and wounding 48 others. Sharqiya TV showed Abadi walking inside the Green Zone with dozens of armed guards following the breach, discrediting reports he had fled. He called on protesters to return to areas set aside for demonstrations and not to infringe on public property.

Such a breach is unprecedented, though only a few years ago mortars frequently rained down on the 10-square-kilometre Green Zone, which once housed the headquarters of the U.S. occupation and before that a palace belonging to Saddam Hussein. Checkpoints and concrete barriers have blocked bridges and highways leading to the neighborhood for years, symbolizing the isolation of Iraq’s leadership from its people.

Videos showed protesters on Saturday attacking a white, armored SUV with sticks and beating a man in a gray suit. The source in Sadr’s office said a Sadrist MP had escorted out several deputies, the last ones holed up in parliament, in his motorcade.

About ten members of the Peace Brigades, Sadr’s paramilitary group, were checking protesters cursorily as government security forces who usually conduct careful searches with bomb-sniffing dogs stood by the side, a Reuters witness said. Thousands more protesters remained at the gates chanting “Peaceful!”. Some stood atop concrete blast walls that form the district’s outer barrier. A Sadr spokesman told Reuters the cleric had called on supporters to evacuate parliament and set up tents outside.

President Fuad Massoum called on them to leave parliament, but urged politicians to implement the cabinet reform: “Burying the regime of party and sectarian quotas cannot be delayed.”

“Great popular uprising”

Inside parliament hundreds of protesters danced, waved Iraqi flags and chanted pro-Sadr slogans. Some appeared to be breaking furniture. Rudaw TV showed them chanting and taking pictures of themselves inside the main chamber where moments earlier lawmakers had met.

Parliament failed to reach quorum earlier on Saturday to complete voting on a cabinet reshuffle proposed by Abadi. A handful of ministers were approved on Tuesday despite disruptions by dissenting lawmakers. Political parties have resisted Abadi’s efforts to replace some ministers – chosen to balance Iraq’s divisions along party, ethnic and sectarian lines – with technocrats in order to combat corruption.

Supporters of Sadr, whose fighters once ran swathes of Baghdad and helped defend the capital from Islamic State in 2014, have been demonstrating in Baghdad for weeks, responding to their leader’s call to put pressure on Abadi to follow through on months-old reform promises. Moments before the Green Zone breach, Sadr seemed to offer an ultimatum: “Either corrupt (officials) and quotas remain or the entire government will be brought down and no one will be exempt from that.”

In a televised speech from the holy city of Najaf announcing a two-month withdrawal from public life, Sadr said he was “waiting for the great popular uprising and the major revolution to stop the march of the corrupt.”

Source: Reuters

State of emergency declared in Baghdad as al-Sadr supporters break into green zone

Hundreds of supporters of Shi’ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone on Saturday and entered the parliament building after lawmakers failed to convene for a vote on overhauling the government, two Reuters witnesses said.
The protesters, who had gathered outside the heavily fortified district housing government buildings and many foreign embassies, crossed a bridge over the Tigris River chanting, “The cowards ran away!” in apparent reference to lawmakers leaving parliament, one of the witnesses said.
A guard at a checkpoint said the protesters had not been searched before entering. About ten members of the armed group loyal to Sadr were checking protesters cursorily as government security forces who usually conduct careful searches with bomb-sniffing dogs stood by the side, the witness said.
The protesters wove Iraqi flags and chanted “Peaceful, peaceful!”. Some were standing on top of concrete blast walls that form the outer barrier to the Green Zone. Thousands more remained at the gates of the district.
Supporters of Sadr, whose fighters once controlled swathes of Baghdad and helped defend the capital from Islamic State, have been demonstrating for weeks at the gates of the Green Zone, responding to their leader’s call to pressure the government to reform.
Abadi wants to replace some ministers – chosen to balance Iraq’s divisions along party, ethnic and sectarian lines – with technocrats in order to combat corruption; but political parties have resisted the changes. Abadi has warned that any delay to the vote could hamper the war against Islamic State, which controls vast swathes of northern and western Iraq.
Rudaw TV showed protesters chanting and taking selfies inside the parliament chamber where moments earlier lawmakers had been meeting.

Baghdad 160430-01

(story developing)

Update 30/4/2016 15:30 — MP Ammar Tuma attacked by protesters

MP Ammar Tuma attacked by protesters outside the parliament building.

Update 30/4/2016 16:20 — State of emergency declared in Baghdad

State of emergency declared in Baghdad, city’s entries blocked.

Update 30/4/2016 19:00 — Siege of parliament continues, MPs evacuated

Protester holds up picture of Moqtada al-Sadr on his phone inside the parliament hall in Baghdad [photo via AFP, 30/4/2016]
Protester holds up picture of Moqtada al-Sadr on his phone inside the parliament hall in Baghdad [photo via AFP, 30/4/2016]

Syrians vote for parliament while opposition calls elections ‘theater’

Syrians voted in a parliamentary election in government-held areas of the country on Wednesday in what voters called a show of support for President Bashar al-Assad, who is holding the poll in defiance of opponents seeking to oust him.

The election is going ahead independently of a U.N.-led peace process aimed at finding a political solution to the five-year-long war. The government says it is being held on time in line with the constitution. The opposition says the vote is illegitimate, while Britain and France dismissed it as “flimsy facade” and a “sham”. “We are voting for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of Assad. Assad is already strong but these elections show that the people support him and bolster him,” said Hadi Jumaa, a 19-year-old student, as he cast his ballot at his university halls of residence in Damascus.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad casts his vote next to his wife Asma in Damascus. April 13, 2016
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad casts his vote next to his wife Asma in Damascus on April 13, 2016 [photo handout by SANA]

Dozens queued to vote at one polling station where a portrait of Assad hung on the wall. Outside, some danced. With his wife Asma at his side as he went to vote in Damascus, a smiling Assad told state TV that terrorism had been able to destroy much of Syria’s infrastructure but not Syria’s “social structure, the national identity”. It was the first time he had voted in a parliamentary election.

The conflict has killed more than 250,000 and created millions of refugees, splintering Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by the government, an array of rebels, a powerful Kurdish militia, and the Islamic State group. The government views all the groups fighting it as terrorists. The government controls around one third of Syria, including the main cities of western Syria, home to most of the people who have not fled the country. The United Nations puts the number of refugees at 4.8 million. With parliament elected every four years, it is the second parliamentary election held by the government in wartime. Assad was reelected head of state in a presidential election in 2014. Voters are to elect 250 MPs to parliament, which has no real power in Syria’s presidential system. The state is rallying them around the slogan “Your vote strengthens your steadfastness”.

Opposition sees vote as “theater”

The election coincides with the start of a second round of U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva. The opposition delegation is due to meet U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura on Wednesday. The government has said it will be ready to participate from Friday. The diplomacy is struggling to make progress with no sign of compromise over the main issue dividing the sides: Assad’s future. The government had ruled out any discussion of the presidency ahead of the first round of talks last month. “These elections do not mean anything,” said Asaad al-Zoubi, chief negotiator for the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Council. “They are illegitimate – theater for the sake of procrastination, theater through which the regime is trying to give itself a little legitimacy.”

Foreign states opposed to Assad have said the vote is out of line with a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls for elections at the end of an 18-month transition. His allies, notably Russia, say it is in line with the constitution. “The decision of the regime to hold elections is a measure of how divorced it is from reality. They cannot buy back legitimacy by putting up a flimsy facade of democracy,” said a spokesperson for the British government. France said the elections were a “sham” organized by “an oppressive regime”. Russia, one of Assad’s main foreign allies, said however that the election was necessary to avoid a power vacuum. “There is understanding already, that a new constitution should emerge as a result of this political process, on the basis of which new, early elections are to be held,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news briefing. “But before this happens, one should avoid any legal vacuum or any vacuum in the sphere of executive power.”

Syrians living in opposition-held areas dismissed the vote. “We used to be forced to cast our vote in sham elections. Now, we are no longer obliged to. After all this killing they want to make a play called elections,” said Yousef Doumani, speaking from the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area near Damascus. But Shereen Sirmani, who fled to Damascus from the Islamic State-besieged city of Deir al-Zor four months ago, said the election was good for Syria. “We hope they bring people together,” she said. “We support Assad and these elections are a boost for him.”

Source: Reuters

Southern Front seizes Tasil from Daesh-affiliated jihadists

Rebels seized a town in southern Syria from groups loyal to Islamic State just a day after fighters captured another town from the hardline militants in a separate insurgent assault in the north, a rebel source and a monitoring group said.

The rebels had by late on Friday taken control of Tasil in Daraa province that is near the Jordanian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the source and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

They drove out fighters from the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade and the Muthanna Movement, which they said were groups loyal to Islamic State.

“Our battle continues against them, until we have cleansed the area of them,” said Abu Ghiath al-Shami, a spokesman for the Alwiyat Seif al-Sham group that is part of a rebel alliance in the south. He described the latest attacks against the hardline jihadists as a “widened campaign against Daesh”.

It was the second blow dealt by insurgents fighting against Islamic State or Islamic State-linked fighters in as many days.