Baghdad in crisis as protesters loyal to Moqtada Al Sadr storm Parliament

Political parties in Iraq are in deadlock amid a 10-month row over government formation

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Protesters loyal to nationalist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr on Wednesday stormed a government complex in Baghdad known as the International Zone, or Green Zone, breaking down several concrete barriers despite attempts by security guards to stop them with water cannons.

The International Zone hosts Iraq’s Parliament, foreign embassies and residencies of several of the country’s politicians, including the offices of a number of Cabinet ministers.

The protesters — crowds of whom were seen inside the building chanting slogans against corruption on Wednesday evening — were rallying against the nomination of Mohammed Shia Al Sudani, a veteran politician aligned with former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki.

The crowds seemed jubilant, shouting pro-Al Sadr slogans and waving Iraqi flags. Some brandished plastic rubbish bins in a gesture to the corrupt and that they are determined to dispose of them as refuse.

In scenes that resembled a repeat of unrest in May 2016 — when the International Zone was stormed by thousands of Sadrist protesters who ransacked Parliament — security forces were seen to be exercising restraint.

There was hope Wednesday's protest would end without bloodshed as Mr Al Sadr praised his supporters for standing against "corruption" before asking them to "pray and go back to your homes safely.”

"Your message has been delivered," he said on twitter.

Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who leads a caretaker government and is currently in western Iraq's Anbar province inaugurating a new power station, had previously called on demonstrators to “preserve public and private property” and to “listen to instructions of the security forces responsible for protecting them in accordance with the regulations and laws and to immediately withdraw from the Green Zone”.

But Mr Al Sadr's rival political bloc, the Co-ordination Framework, released a statement saying it held the caretaker government responsible for allowing the protesters inside the Green Zone, demanding “tough measures to maintain security and order and avoid chaos and any illegal practices”.

Former deputy Parliament speaker and Sadrist official Hakim Al Zamili arrived in the Green Zone late on Wednesday and reportedly urged the protesters to leave the building.

Mr Al Zamili, a senior member of the cleric's movement, gained notoriety after the US-led 2003 invasion as a commander in Mr Al Sadr's militia forces, which were widely accused of kidnapping and murder.

Both the Sadrists and the Co-ordination Framework are armed militias that have been in a simmering feud for years that has involved assassinations and occasional street battles.

Long-term rivals

Mr Al Maliki is a long-time rival of Mr Al Sadr, whose militia fought against security forces loyal to the former prime minister in the southern port city of Basra in 2008.

Mr Al Sadr commands hundreds of thousands of loyal supporters, mainly hailing from impoverished urban areas and rural parts of the south, as well as a stronghold in Baghdad known as Sadr City.

Originally supported by Iran, the cleric has become an outspoken opponent of what he says is foreign interference in Iraq, in reference to the US and Iran.

Iran has nurtured a network of militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella organisation of armed groups who are partially under Iraqi government control, after legislation pushed for by Mr Al Maliki.

Mr Al Sadr's political bloc won the plurality of seats in Iraq's Parliament in the October elections, but he withdrew 73 MPs from the body in June, decrying the entire political process as corrupt.

The withdrawal has left Mr Al Sadr's Iran-backed rivals in the Co-ordination Framework bloc in the lead position to form a government, which would include Mr Al Maliki and Mr Al Sudani, as well as a number of figures closely aligned with Iran, including Hadi Al Amiri and Qais Al Khazali, both of whom control large militias.

Mr Al Sadr has vowed to hold frequent demonstrations to protest against the government failure to provide jobs and services, although he retains strong influence within a number of ministries.

Thousands of Sadrist supporters last stormed the Green Zone in 2016, assaulting and injuring an MP and taking over the National Assembly building before peacefully leaving the complex. A second attempt months later resulted in at least seven deaths.

Updated: July 27, 2022, 8:48 PM