Thousands of al-Sadr supporters storm Iraqi parliament, announce sit-in protest on premises – What led to the agitation?

Protesters try to remove concrete barriers and cross the bridge towards the Green Zone area in Baghdad

Protesters try to remove concrete barriers and cross the bridge towards the Green Zone area in Baghdad

Photo : AP

Baghdad: For the second time this week, supporters of powerful Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr breached the country’s parliament today. Demonstrators waved Iraqi flags and pictures of the cleric inside the legislature. They crowded the chamber where some sat at lawmakers’ desks while others milled about, raising their mobile phones to film the occupation. They have announced their intention to remain at the site until further notice.

Who is protesting in Iraq?

The protesters are followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and have travelled to the capital city from across the country to stage the sit-in agitation. It was the second time in the span of three days that the cleric has ordered his followers to stage a sit-in inside the Green Zone. Earlier on Wednesday, his supporters had issued a warning of sorts, storming the parliament building in a similar fashion but leaving soon after at al-Sadr’s command.

On Saturday, protesters continued to throng the parliament building, occupying the parliament floor and raising the Iraqi flag and portraits of al-Sadr. They chanted against the intrusion of foreign states, a veiled reference to Iran. As the numbers inside the parliament swelled, the police backed off. An expected parliament session did not take place Saturday and there were no lawmakers in the hall.

Meanwhile, an alliance of Iran-backed groups has called for counter-protests, raising the spectre of civil strife.

Why are Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters protesting?

Al-Sadr’s bloc had won the largest number of seats in the federal elections held last October, but fell far short of a majority. With neither side willing to concede, Iraq’s limbo and political paralysis has ushered in a new era of instability in the beleaguered country. Against this backdrop al-Sadr has resorted to using his large grassroots following as a pressure tactic against his rivals to derail their bid to form a new government. His supporters oppose the candidacy of former minister and ex-provincial governor Sudani, who is the pro-Iran Coordination Framework’s pick for premier.

By convention, the post of prime minister goes to a leader from Iraq’s Shiite majority. Sadr had initially supported the idea of a majority government that would in turn send his Shiite adversaries from the Coordination Framework into opposition. The Coordination Framework draws lawmakers from former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s party and the pro-Iran Fatah Alliance, the political arm of the Shiite-led former paramilitary group Hashed al-Shaabi.

But on June 12 Sadr’s 73 lawmakers quit in a move seen as seeking to pressure his rivals to fast-track the formation of a government. Sixty-four new lawmakers were sworn in later that month, making the pro-Iran bloc the largest in parliament. That triggered the fury of Sadr’s supporters, who according to a security source also ransacked the Baghdad office of Maliki’s Dawa party on Friday night, as well as that of the Hima movement of Ammar al-Hakim which is a part of the Coordination Framework.

This is not the first time that the leader has taken similar actions. In 2016 his followers did the same under the administration of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. With Iraq now in the tenth month since elections, the political vacuum is the longest since the US-led 2003 invasion reset the political order.

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