Protesters camp out in Iraq’s Parliament building as a power struggle unfolds

by | Jul 31, 2022 | Top Stories

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Iraqi protesters rest inside the Parliament building in Baghdad on Sunday. Thousands of followers of an influential Shiite cleric stormed into the building on Saturday, for the second time this week, protesting government formation efforts led by his rivals, an alliance of Iran-backed groups.

Anmar Khalil/AP

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Anmar Khalil/AP

BAGHDAD — With mattresses strewn about, food trucked in and protesters playacting as lawmakers, hundreds of followers of an influential Shiite cleric were camped out Sunday inside the Iraqi parliament after toppling security walls around the building and storming in the previous day. The protesters — followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — pledged to hold an open-ended sit-in to derail efforts by their rivals from Iran-backed political groups to form the country’s next government. Their demands are lofty: early elections, constitutional amendments and the ouster of al-Sadr’s opponents. The developments have catapulted Iraq’s politics to center stage, plunging the country deeper into a political crisis as a power struggle unfolds between the two major Shiite groups. Al-Sadr has not visited the scene but egged his loyalists on, tweeting on Sunday that the sit-in was “a great opportunity to radically challenge the political system, the constitution, and the elections.” He called on all Iraqis to join the “revolution,” an indication the sit-in will likely become a drawn-out event. On Sunday, the sit-in appeared more of a joyous celebration than a political protest — al-Sadr’s followers were dancing, praying and chanting slogans inside the parliament, in praise of their leader. In between, they took naps on mattresses lining the grand halls.

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Iraqi protesters pose with national flags inside the Parliament building in Baghdad on Sunday.

Anmar Khalil/AP

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Anmar Khalil/AP

It was a scene starkly different from the one on Saturday, when protesters used ropes and chains to topple concrete walls around the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, then flooded into the assembly building. It was the second such breach last week, but this time they did not disperse peacefully.

Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at first, to try to repel the demonstrators. The Ministry of Health said about 125 people were injured in the violence — 100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces. Within a few hours, the police backed off, leaving the parliament to the protesters. The takeover of the parliament showed al-Sadr was using his large grassroots following as a pressure tactic against his rivals in the Coordination Framework — an alliance of Shiite parties backed by Iran and lead by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — after his party was not able to form a government despite having won the largest number of seats in the federal elections held last October. Neither side appears willing to concede and al-Sadr seems intent on derailing government formation efforts by the Iran-backed groups. But there were red-lines — the road to the judicial council building nearby was closed, with heavy security presence around it. Breaching the building would amount to a coup, and al-Sadr had ordered his followers to steer clear of it. The protesters appeared prepared for the long-haul — or at least an extended sit-in. Tuk-tuks, a mainstay of transportation in the impoverished Baghdad suburb of Sadr City from where the cleric derives much of his following, shuttled demonstrators to and from the parliament for a fee of 1,000 Iraqi dinars, or 60 cents.
Coolers were set up and water bottles were passed around. A child handed out sweets while teenagers sold juice from sacks. A few women — a minority in the male-dominated demonstration — swept the floors. Outs …

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