Iraqi security forces initially used tear gas and sound bombs to repel the protesters, followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Once inside, the protesters announced an open-ended sit-in, claiming they would not disperse until their demands are met.
As the number of protesters increased, the police withdrew. An expected parliamentary session did not take place and there were no lawmakers in the room. By late afternoon, the health ministry said about 125 people had been injured in the violence – 100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces.
Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi has suspended future sessions until further notice.
Earlier in the day and heeding al-Sadr’s calls, the protesters used ropes and chains to tear down concrete barricades leading to the gate of Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which is home to government offices and embassies.
The development showed that al-Sadr used his large following as a pressure tactic against his rivals after his party failed to form a government despite winning the largest number of seats in last October’s federal election.
As neither side seems willing to give in, and al-Sadr intends to derail government-building efforts led by his rivals, Iraq’s limbo and political paralysis has ushered in a new era of instability in the ravaged country.
Al-Sadr has used his followers as leverage against rivals and ordered them to occupy parliament in the past — such as in 2016, during Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government.
Now, 10 months since the last election, the political vacuum threatens to become the longest since the 2003 US-led invasion to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had restored the country’s political order.
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 — showed signs of internal divisions later on Saturday.
Initially, the alliance called for “peaceful” counter-protests to defend the state, raising fears of possible street clashes and inter-ethnic violence.
“Civil peace is a red line and all Iraqis must be ready to defend it by any peaceful means possible,” the alliance said.
Later, Hadi al-Amiri, an alliance leader, released a statement inviting our “dear brother” al-Sadr to “a serious dialogue” to find a way out of the deadlock. Al-Maliki also released a statement saying that the day’s tumultuous events prompted him to call for dialogue with al-Sadr.
Al-Maliki is al-Sadr’s main rival and both men are powerful in their own right.
The United Nations expressed concern about further instability and called on Iraqi leaders to de-escalate. “Voices of reason and wisdom are critical to prevent further violence. All actors are encouraged to de-escalate in the interest of all Iraqis,” the UN said.
In a speech, outgoing Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for restraint.
“The political blocs must sit down and negotiate and come to an agreement in the best interests of Iraq and the Iraqis,” he said, ordering security forces to protect protesters.
Shia leader Ammar al-Hakim – who is affiliated with the Framework but has announced not to participate in the next government – echoed al-Kadhimi’s words and called on both sides to make concessions to “replace the irreplaceable loss of the homeland”. to prevent.
Throughout the day, al-Sadr supporters — many had come not only from Baghdad but from other provinces to stage the sit-in — continued to crowd the parliament building, raising the Iraqi flag and portraits of al-Sadr. They chanted against the intrusion of foreign states, a veiled reference to Iran.
It was the second time in four days that the cleric ordered his followers to plead their case within the Green Zone. On Wednesday, after protesters stormed parliament in a similar fashion, they left shortly after entering, on al-Sadr’s orders.
Wednesday’s display of power came after al-Sadr’s rivals took a step forward in their government-building efforts by naming Mohammed al-Sudani as their prime minister candidate.
In parliament, the defense of the security forces became less intense as the day wore on and many were seen chatting with protesters. Later, some demonstrators from the parliament started to go to the Judiciary Council building.
“We came today to remove the corrupt political class and prevent them from holding a parliamentary session, and to prevent the Framework System from forming a government,” said Raad Thabet, 41. “We have heeded al-Sadr’s call .”
Al-Sadr’s party left talks on forming the government in June, giving its rivals in the Coordination Framework the majority they needed to continue the process.
Many protesters wore black to mark the days leading up to Ashura, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most important figures of Shia Islam. Al-Sadr’s messages to his followers have used the important day in Shia Islam to fuel protests.
It is unclear to what extent Saturday’s events could derail efforts to gain sufficient support for al-Sudani’s bid for the premiership. Al-Maliki had wanted the prime minister himself, but audio tapes had leaked in which he allegedly cursed and criticized al-Sadr and even his own Shia allies, effectively sinking his candidacy.