BAGHDAD (AP) – Thousands of supporters of an influential Shia cleric broke through Iraq’s parliament on Saturday for the second time this week, protesting government-forming efforts led by his rivals, a coalition of Iran-backed groups. The alliance called for counter-protests and raised the specter of civil wars.
Iraqi security forces initially used tear gas and sonic bombs to repel the protesters, causing several injuries. Once inside, the protesters declared an indefinite sit-in, claiming they would not disperse until their demands were answered.
As the numbers in Parliament swelled, the police retreated. An expected parliamentary session did not take place on Saturday and there were no lawmakers in the hall. In the late afternoon, the Ministry of Health said about 125 people were injured in the violence – 100 demonstrators and 25 members of the security forces.
Earlier in the day and following calls from cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, protesters used ropes and chains to tear down cement barricades leading to the gate of Iraq’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to government buildings and embassies.
Al-Sadr has used his large grass-roots following as a bargaining chip against his rivals after his party failed to form a government despite winning the most seats in last October’s federal elections.
With neither side ready to back down and al-Sadr anxious to derail government-forming efforts led by his rivals, Iraq’s limbo and political paralysis have ushered in a new era of instability in the beleaguered country.
Al-Sadr has used his supporters as leverage against his rivals, ordering them to occupy parliament on previous occasions – in 2016 his supporters did the same during Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s tenure.
Now, in the tenth month since Iraq’s last elections, the political vacuum is shaping up to be the longest since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a bid to restore political order to the country.
Later on Saturday, al-Sadr’s rivals in the Coordination Framework — an alliance of Shia parties backed by Iran and led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — urged his supporters to hold “peaceful” counter-protests in defense of the state, a statement from the said Group. The call raises fears of possible full-scale street battles and bloodshed, not seen since 2007.
Al-Maliki is al-Sadr’s main rival and both men are powerful in their own right.
“Civil peace is a red line and all Iraqis must be prepared to defend it by any peaceful means possible,” the coalition said.
The United Nations expressed concern about further instability and called on the Iraqi leadership to de-escalate. “The ongoing escalation is deeply worrying. Voices of reason and wisdom are crucial to prevent further violence. All actors are encouraged to de-escalate in the interests of all Iraqis,” the UN said.
Acting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for restraint in a speech.
“Political blocs need to sit down and negotiate and reach an understanding for the good of Iraq and Iraqis,” he said. Al-Kadhimi directed security forces to protect the protesters and urged them to keep their protest peaceful, a statement said.
Shia leader Ammar al-Hakim – who is allied with the Framework but has announced he will not take part in the next government – echoed the words of the incumbent prime minister, urging both sides to make concessions to “relieve the irreparable loss of the… homeland” to avoid.
Meanwhile, al-Sadr supporters – many who had traveled not only from Baghdad but also from other provinces to stage the sit-in – continued to crowd the parliament building, occupying the parliament hall and hoisting the Iraqi flag and portraits of al-Sadr. They sang against foreign intrusion, a veiled reference to Iran.
It was the second time in four days that the cleric had ordered his followers to plead their cause within the Green Zone. Protesters similarly stormed the parliament building on Wednesday, but left shortly after entering, on al-Sadr’s orders.
Wednesday’s show of force came after al-Sadr’s rivals took a step forward in their efforts to form a government by nominating Mohammed al-Sudani as their nominee for prime minister.
As the day progressed, the defenses of the security forces at Parliament House eased, with many sitting and chatting with protesters. Later, some protesters moved from Parliament to the Judicial Council building.
“We have come today to remove the corrupt political class and prevent them from holding a parliamentary session and to prevent the Framework from forming a government,” said Raad Thabet, 41. “We have responded to the call by al -Sadr responds.”
Al-Sadr’s party ended government-forming talks in June, giving its rivals in the Coordination Framework Alliance the majority they needed to move the process forward.
Many protesters wore black to mark the days leading up to Ashura, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohamed and one of the most important figures in Shia Islam. Al-Sadr’s messages to his followers have used the important day in Shia Islam to foment protests.
It is unclear to what extent Saturday’s events could derail efforts to rally enough support for al-Sudani’s bid for prime minister. Al-Maliki wanted the prime ministerial post himself, but audio recordings were leaked in which he allegedly cursed and criticized al-Sadr and even his own Shia allies, effectively wiping out his candidacy.