Iraqi protesters set up house after occupying parliament

Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr say he will decide when they should leave

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Not long after protesters stormed Iraq's parliament on Saturday, fleets of pickup trucks began delivering water and hot meals to the thousands of people gathered inside and around the legislature building.

In the gardens outside, protesters pitched a large camouflage tent by the entrance as women with children joined other supporters of the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr in setting up camp.

One man lit a fire to warm some tea while another offered cigarettes for sale as security forces stood by and watched.

Unlike their brief occupation of parliament on Wednesday, the protesters appear set to stay until Iraq's political deadlock is resolved to their leader's satisfaction.

“The demonstrators announce a sit-in until further notice,” Mr Al Sadr's movement said in a brief statement carried by the state news agency on Saturday.

Iraq's squabbling political factions have been unable to move forward with forming a government for nearly 10 months since a general election.

Mr Al Sadr rallied his supporters after the Co-ordination Framework, an alliance of Shiite parties close to Iran, put forward an ally of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, the cleric's long-time rival, as a candidate for prime minister.

It's Moqtada Sadr who decides. When he tells us to go home, we will leave
Umm Mahdi, protester

Inside the parliament building, some protesters sat at legislators' desks while others milled about, raising their mobile phones to film the occupation.

The devout recited religious chants marking the Muslim month of Muharram, which starts on Sunday and is a key period in the Shiite religious calendar.

“It's Moqtada Sadr who decides,” said protester Umm Mahdi, cloaked from head to foot in a black robe.

“When he tells us to go home, we will leave,” she told AFP, surrounded by her four children, one of them a newborn baby, and three female cousins.

“Obeying the sayyed is the most important thing,” she said, using an honorific given to Mr Al Sadr as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.

Zeinab Hussein said she had “left behind her home and her family” to join the sit-in.

Like many of the protesters, she wanted an end to the corruption that she said has denied oil-rich Iraq even basic services.

“Why is there no electricity in Iraq?” she asked. “Where is all the oil money going?”

A lack of public services and widespread corruption are grievances shared by almost all Iraqis.

“Corruption has infected all government departments,” said Sayed Haidar, a 35-year-old day labourer from the Baghdad Shiite district of Sadr City.

“Nobody can obtain anything from the state or from a government ministry without having connections with a political party.”

As a part of power-sharing arrangements involved in the formation of Iraq's governments, the Sadrists too have their representatives at the highest levels of ministries, but in the eyes of the protesters, that does nothing to diminish the cleric's standing.

“He is the only person in Iraq who stands up for the poor,” Mr Haidar said.

With reporting from agencies.

Updated: July 31, 2022, 11:15 AM