Iraqi protesters trigger state of emergency after storming parliament

Baghdad's high security Green Zone breached by followers of influential cleric Moqtada Al Sadr after legislature fails to endorse new ministers because of lack of qorum.

Followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr take selfies after storming Iraq’s parliament on April 30, 2016.  Ahmed Jalil / EPA
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Baghdad // Iraq declared a state of emergency in Baghdad on Saturday after thousands of supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr entered the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone and stormed parliament to protest against its failure to endorse a new cabinet aimed at ending corruption.

The breach marks a major escalation in the country’s political crisis following months of anti-government protests, sit-ins and demonstrations by supporters of Mr Al Sadr. Besides the parliament compound, the Green Zone in central Baghdad houses the presidential palace, the prime minister’s office and several embassies, including those of the United States and Britain.

Mr Al Sadr had earlier accused Iraqi politicians of blocking political reforms aimed at combating corruption and waste. While he did not call for an escalation to the protests, shortly after his remarks his supporters began scaling the compound’s walls. A group of young men then pulled down a section of concrete blast walls to cheers from the crowd of thousands gathered in the streets outside.

They then headed to parliament, where some rampaged through the building and broke into offices, while other protesters shouted “peacefully, peacefully” and tried to contain the destruction.

Security forces were present but did not try to prevent the demonstrators from entering the parliament building.

“You are not staying here! This is your last day in the Green Zone,” shouted one protester as thousands broke in.

Inside the main hall protesters sat in the MPs’ seats taking “selfies” and shouting slogans.

One called a friend on his mobile: “I am sitting in [parliament speaker] Salim Al Juburi’s chair. I have a meeting, we’ll talk later.”

“We are the ones running this country now, the time of the corrupt is over,” said another protester, as crowds filled rooms throughout the building.

Protesters also pulled barbed wire across a road leading to one of the exits of the Green Zone, preventing some scared MPs from fleeing the chaos, and attacked and damaged several vehicles they believed to belong to legislators.

The Iraqi capital was already on high alert for a major Shiite pilgrimage, participants in which were targeted in a bombing that killed 23 on Saturday, but extra security measures were taken after the Green Zone was breached.

The interior ministry said a state of emergency had been declared in the city and security measures increased around the central bank and the international airport. The main entrances to Baghdad were temporarily closed, ministry officials said.

Parliament failed to reach a quorum on Saturday after approving some of prime minister Haider Al Abadi’s ministerial nominees earlier in the week.

The politicians “refused to end corruption and refused to end quotas”, Mr Al Sadr said in a speech in the holy city of Najaf, adding that he and his supporters would not participate in “any political process in which there are any type ... of political party quotas.”

Key government posts have for years been shared out based on political and sectarian quotas, a practice demonstrators want to end.

Mr Al Abadi’s efforts to change the system have been opposed by powerful political parties that rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds.

Both Washington and the United Nations have warned that the political crisis could distract from the fight against the extremist group ISIL, which controls a large part of western Iraq and is able to carry out frequent attacks against both civilians and security forces in government-held areas.

ISIL claimed a car bombing earlier on Saturday in the Nahrawan area near Baghdad that killed at least 23 people and wounded at least 38, according to officials.

The extremist group said the attack on a road used by pilgrims walking to the shrine of Imam Musa Kadhim in northern Baghdad was carried out by a suicide bomber who detonated a vehicle laden with three tonnes of explosives.

Iraqi forces backed by a US-led military coalition have regained significant ground from ISIL, which overran large areas north and west of Baghdad in 2014.

* Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg and Associated Press