Iraqi cleric supporters camped in parliament for second day – Times of India


BAGHDAD: Mattress-strewn, food carted in and protesters masquerading as lawmakers, hundreds of followers of an influential Shia cleric camped in Iraq on Sunday parliament after the collapse of security walls around the building and storming the previous day.
The protesters – followers of clergy Muqtada al-Sadr — promised to hold an open sit-in to derail the efforts of their rivals from Iran-backed political groups to form the country’s next government. Their demands are lofty: snap elections, constitutional changes and the ouster of al-Sadr’s rivals.
The developments have catapulted Iraqi politics to the center and plunged the country deeper into a political crisis as a power struggle unfolds between the two major Shia groups.
On Sunday, the sit-in seemed more like a joyous celebration than a political protest – al-Sadr’s followers danced, prayed and sang slogans in parliament in honor of their leader. In between they took naps on mattresses along the large halls.
It was a very different scene from Saturday, when protesters used ropes and chains to tear concrete walls around the heavily fortified Green zone in Baghdad, after which it poured into the convention building. It was the second such breach last week, but this time they did not spread peacefully.
Iraqi security forces initially fired tear gas and stun grenades to repel the protesters. The health ministry said about 125 people were injured in the violence – 100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces. Within hours, the police withdrew and left parliament to the protesters.
The takeover of parliament showed that al-Sadr was using his large supporters as a pressure tactic against his rivals in the Coordination Framework – an alliance of Shia parties backed by Iran and led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – after his party was unable to to form a government despite winning the largest number of seats in last October’s federal election.
Neither side seems willing to give in and al-Sadr seems intent on derailing the efforts of the Iranian-backed groups to form the government.
But there were red lines – the road to the Judicial Council building nearby was closed, with heavy security presence surrounding it. Violating the building would amount to a coup and al-Sadr had ordered his followers to stay away from it.
The protesters seemed prepared for the long haul – or at least an extended sit-in.
Tuk-tuks, a mainstay of transportation in Baghdad’s impoverished Sadr City suburb, where the cleric draws much of his following, transported protesters to and from parliament for a fee of 1,000 Iraqi dinars, or 60 cents.
Cool boxes were set up and water bottles were distributed. A child handed out candies while teenagers sold juice from bags. A few women—a minority in the male-dominated demonstration—swept the floors.
Outside, food parcels and other rubbish littered the street leading to the parliament gates, while trucks brought in giant kettles of steaming rice and beans to feed the protesters. Signs nearby read: “Revolution Restaurant”
Al-Sadr’s portraits hung everywhere. Many protesters smoked, threw cigarette butts on the floor and cigarette smoke filled the meeting.
A young man, Samir Aziz Abbas, was selling popsicles. “I’m here to make a living,” he said, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
A protester, Haidar Jameel, took the seat of parliament speaker Mohammed Halbousi – one of the most powerful political figures in Iraq – and watched his rowdy fellow protesters from there. After al-Sadr’s followers took over parliament, Halbousi suspended future sessions until further notice.
“We will not back down until our demands are met,” Jameel said.
Al-Sadr’s support base is largely made up of impoverished Iraqis living in the slums of Baghdad, attracted by calls against corruption. But al-Sadr is also an established name, with many officials appointed by his party across the state apparatus.
By choosing to stage his protest ahead of Shia Islam’s holy day of Ashura, al-Sadr took advantage of a time when religious fervor was running high – protesters performed religious rituals in parliament. In the afternoon, an imam led a prayer in the main hall.
Ashura commemorates the murder of the prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Hussein. Iraqis usually march by the thousands to commemorate the day in the holy city of Karbala and emotions run high in the days before.
According to Shia religious belief, one way to show love towards Imam Hussein is to rebel against oppression.
Al-Sadr’s messages to his followers are infused with references to the pilgrimage, said Marsin Alshamary, a postdoctoral researcher at the Brookings Institution.
For the protesters, most of them young men, the sit-in offers an opportunity to get close to power in a system that has long neglected them. Previously, they would not be able to enter the heavily fortified zone without permission.
When it was Meethak Muhi’s turn to take the seat of the deputy speaker of the parliament, he tied himself to the seat with a scarf.
“Parliament, it’s over,” he shouted.

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