Hundreds of supporters of powerful Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr danced and sang in parliament after storming Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone to protest a rival bloc’s nomination for prime minister.
Police fired volleys of tear gas to prevent protesters from breaching the gates of the heavily fortified Green Zone, but the crowd rushed forward and entered Parliament.
“I am against the corrupt officials in power,” said protester Mohamed Ali, a 41-year-old day laborer, one of hundreds who entered the zone, which houses both government buildings and diplomatic missions, before killing them later left peacefully.
The protests are the latest challenge for oil-rich Iraq, which remains mired in a political and socio-economic crisis despite rising global energy prices.
Sadr’s block emerged from it elections in October the largest group in Parliament, but still far from a majority and nine months later there is still a deadlock on forming a new government.
Crowds milled around the Parliament building, waving national flags, taking photos, singing and cheering.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi called on the demonstrators to “retreat immediately” and warned that the security forces would “guarantee the protection of state institutions and foreign missions and prevent any disruption to security and order”.
But it took orders from the Shiite leader Sadr before the masses of protesters departed nearly two hours later.
“Revolution of reforms and rejection of injustice and corruption,” Sadr wrote on Twitter in support of the protesters.
“Your message has been heard… You have been terrorizing the corrupt,” he added, urging protesters to say a prayer “before they return home safe and sound.”
“We obey the Sayyed,” the crowd chanted as they quietly exited Parliament, an expression honoring Sadr by recognizing him as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
Sadr’s bloc won 73 seats in last year’s elections, making it the largest faction in parliament with 329 seats. But since the vote, talks to form a new government have stalled.
The protesters reject the candidacy of Mohammed al-Sudani, a former minister and ex-provincial governor chosen by the pro-Iranian Prime Ministerial Coordination Framework.
The coordination framework is attracting lawmakers from former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s party and the pro-Iranian Fatah Alliance, the political arm of the Shia-led former paramilitary group Hashed al-Shaabi.
“I am against Sudani’s candidacy because he is corrupt,” added protester Mohamed Ali.
“We reject the entire political process,” said Bashar, a protester in parliament, using only his first name. “We want an independent person who serves the people.”
Iraq was plunged deeper into a political crisis last month when Sadr’s 73 MPs resigned en masse.
Sadr initially supported the idea of a “majority government” that would have pushed his Shia opponents out of the coordination framework and into opposition.
The former militia leader then surprised many by forcing his lawmakers to resign, a move seen as an attempt to pressure his rivals to rush the formation of a government.
Later in June, 64 new lawmakers were sworn in, making the pro-Iran bloc the largest in parliament.
Earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of Muslim believers loyal to Sadr took part in a Friday prayer in Baghdad in a show of political power.
The large turnout came despite the scorching heat and the absence of the Shia cleric – a nod to his status as a political heavyweight as well as a key religious authority.