BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of followers of an influential Shia cleric broke into Iraq’s parliament for the second time this week on Saturday to protest attempts at government formation led by his rivals, an alliance of Iran-backed groups. The alliance called for counter-protests, raising the specter of civil war.
Iraqi security forces initially used tear gas and sound bombs to fend off the protesters and caused several injuries, The Associated Press witnessed. Once inside, the protesters announced an open-ended sit-in, claiming they would not disperse until their demands are met.
As numbers increased in parliament, the police withdrew. An expected parliamentary session did not take place on Saturday and there were no lawmakers in the room.
By late afternoon, the health ministry said about 125 people had been injured in the violence — 100 civilians and 25 members of the security forces.
Earlier in the day and heeding the calls of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the protesters used ropes to tear down concrete barricades leading to the gate of Iraq’s Green Zone, which is home to government offices and embassies.
Al-Sadr resorted to using his large supporters as a pressure tactic against his rivals after his party failed to form a government, despite winning the largest number of seats in last October’s federal election.
With neither side willing to budge, and al-Sadr intends to derail government-building efforts led by his rivals, Iraq’s limbo and political paralysis has ushered in a new era of instability in the ravaged country.
Al-Sadr has used his supporters as leverage against his rivals, ordering them to occupy parliament on previous occasions. In 2016, his followers did the same under Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
With Iraq in its tenth month since the election, the political vacuum is the longest since the 2003 US-led invasion restored political order.
Later Saturday, al-Sadr’s rivals in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Shia parties backed by Iran, called on his supporters to hold “peaceful” counter-protests to defend the state, according to a statement from the group. The call raises fears of possible large-scale street fighting and bloodshed, unprecedented since 2007.
“Civil peace is a red line and all Iraqis must be ready to defend it by all possible peaceful means,” the statement said.
The United Nations expressed concern about further instability and called on Iraqi leaders to de-escalate. “The ongoing escalation is very worrying. 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 statement said.
Meanwhile, al-Sadr supporters — many had come not only from Baghdad but from other provinces to stage the sit-in — continued to crowd the parliament building, occupy the parliament floor, and hoist 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 three days that the cleric ordered his followers to hold a sit-in in the Green Zone.
On Wednesday, protesters stormed the parliament building in a similar manner, but left shortly after on al-Sadr’s orders. They had come to warn their rivals not to proceed with government formation after the alliance nominated Mohammed al-Sudani as a candidate for the premiership.
Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said in a statement ordering security forces to protect protesters and asking them to keep their protest peaceful. In the parliament building, the defense of the security forces became less intense and many were seen chatting with protesters.
Some protesters started moving from parliament to the Judicial Council building.
“We came today to remove the corrupt political class and prevent them from holding a parliamentary session, and to prevent the Framework System from forming a government,” said Raad Thabet, 41. “We have heeded al-Sadr’s call .”
Al-Sadr’s party withdrew from negotiations to form the government in June, giving its rivals in the Coordinating Framework Alliance the majority they needed to continue the process.
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 the most important figures of Shia Islam. Al-Sadr’s messages to his followers have used the important day in Shia Islam to fuel protests.