Iraqi protesters breach parliament building in Baghdad

Thousands of followers of an influential Shia cleric breached Iraq's parliament on Saturday, the second time in a week, to protest the government formation efforts led by Iran-backed groups.

Cleric's supporters object to Iran-backed parties leading efforts to form next government

Men hold a protest.
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather inside Iraq's parliament in Baghdad's high-security Green Zone on Saturday. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of followers of an influential Shia cleric breached Iraq's parliament on Saturday, the second time this week, protesting government formation efforts led by his rivals, an alliance of Iran-backed groups. The alliance called for counter-protests, raising the spectre of civil strife.

Iraqi security forces initially used tear gas and sound bombs to try to repel the demonstrators, causing several injuries. Once inside, the protesters declared an open-ended sit-in and claimed they would not disperse until their demands were answered.

As the number of people inside parliament swelled, the police backed off. An expected parliamentary session did not take place Saturday and there were no legislators in the hall. By late afternoon, the Ministry of Health said about 125 people had been injured in the violence — 100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces.

Earlier in the day the demonstrators heeded the calls of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, using ropes and chains to pull down cement barricades leading to the gate of Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and embassies in the capital.

9 months on, deadlock persists 

Al-Sadr has resorted to using his large grassroots following as a pressure tactic against his rivals, after his party was not able to form a government despite having won the largest number of seats in federal elections held last October.

With neither side willing to concede and al-Sadr intent on derailing efforts by his rivals to form government, Iraq's limbo and political paralysis has ushered in a new era of instability in the beleaguered country.

Men hold a protest.
Supporters of al-Sadr gather inside Iraq's parliament in Baghdad on Saturday to protest against a rival bloc's nomination for prime minister. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Al-Sadr has ordered his followers to occupy the parliament on previous occasions — in 2016, they did the same thing during the administration of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.

Now, with Iraq in the tenth month since the last elections, the political vacuum is shaping up to be the longest since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein reset the country's political order.

Men raise their arms in protest.
Protesters flash the victory sign as they gather inside Iraq's parliament on Saturday. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Later Saturday, al-Sadr's rivals in the Co-ordination Framework — an alliance of Shia parties backed by Iran and led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — called on its supporters to conduct "peaceful" counter-protests to defend the state, a statement from the group said. The call raises fears of possible large-scale street battles and bloodshed, unseen since 2007.

Al-Maliki is al-Sadr's chief rival and both men are powerful in their own right.

"Civil peace is a red line and all Iraqis must be prepared to defend it in all possible, peaceful, means," the alliance said.

UN urges de-escalation

The United Nations expressed its concern of further instability and called on Iraqi leaders to de-escalate.

"The ongoing escalation is deeply concerning. 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, caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for restraint, saying: "The political blocs must sit down and negotiate and reach an understanding for the sake of Iraq and the Iraqis."

Al-Kadhimi directed security forces to protect demonstrators and asked them to keep their protest peaceful, according to a statement.

Shia leader Ammar al-Hakim — who is allied with the Framework but has announced he would not participate in the next government — echoed the caretaker premier's words and called for both sides to make concessions to avoid "the irreplaceable loss of the homeland."

A man waves a flag.
Protesters wave flags inside Iraq's parliament in Baghdad on Saturday as they denounce attempts by their political rivals to nominate a pro-Iran politician to be Iraq's new leader. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, al-Sadr supporters — many who came not just from Baghdad but other provinces as well in order to stage the sit-in — 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.

It was the second time in the span of four days that the cleric has ordered his followers to take their cause inside the Green Zone. Protesters stormed the parliament building in a similar fashion on Wednesday but left shortly after getting inside, at al-Sadr's command.

Wednesday's show of force came after al-Sadr's rivals made a step forward in efforts to form government by naming Mohammed al-Sudani as their nominee for the premiership.

Inside the parliament building as the day unfolded, the defences of the security forces grew less intense and many were seen sitting and conversing with demonstrators. Later, some protesters began moving from the parliament toward the Judicial Council building.

Aim to remove 'corrupt political class'

"We came today to remove the corrupt political class and prevent them from holding a parliament session, and to prevent the Framework from forming a government," said Raad Thabet, 41. "We responded to al-Sadr's call."

Al-Sadr's party exited government formation talks in June, giving his rivals in the Co-ordination Framework alliance the majority they needed to move forward with the process.

Protesters smash a concrete wall.
Demonstrators pull down concrete barricades leading to the gate of Baghdad's high-security Green Zone. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye /AFP/Getty Images)

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 Shia Islam's most important figures. Al-Sadr's messaging to his followers has used the important day in Shia Islam to kindle protests.

It's unclear to what extent Saturday's events could derail efforts to muster enough support for al-Sudani's bid for premiership.

Al-Maliki had wanted the premier post himself, but audio recordings were leaked in which he purportedly cursed and criticized al-Sadr and even his own Shia allies, which effectively sank his candidacy.