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.
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.”