1 May 2016

Protesters storm Baghdad parliament

7:48 pm on 1 May 2016

Supporters of a powerful Shia Muslim cleric remain camped outside parliament in Baghdad, a day after thousands stormed the secure Green Zone.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather at Grand Festivities Square in Baghdad's Green Zone.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather at Grand Festivities Square in Baghdad's Green Zone. Photo: AFP

For the first time in weeks of protests they broke into the area, home to embassies and government buildings. A state of emergency has been declared.

Security forces used tear gas and fired shots but there was no major violence.

Demonstrators are angry at delays in approving a new, more transparent government of technocrats.

On Sunday morning (local time), hundreds of people remained outside the main parliament building.

Supporters of Moqtada Sadr think a new government would be less corrupt than the current team, which is based on party and religious loyalties.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called on them to return to designated protest areas.

As darkness fell, the protesters could be seen sitting on lawns or in tents near parliament which they had occupied earlier.

Members of the Sadrist militia group Saraya al-Salam were keeping order in the area, news agencies said.

Iraqi protesters celebrate as they open a breach in a concrete wall surrounding the parliament after breaking into Baghdad's heavily fortified "Green Zone" on April 30, 2016.

Protesters celebrate as they open a breach in a concrete wall surrounding the parliament after breaking into Baghdad's heavily fortified "Green Zone". Photo: AFP

Earlier, the demonstrators took over the building after breaking through the blast barriers which surround the Green Zone, toppling sections of the wall.

The push began after MPs failed again to convene in sufficient numbers for a vote on the new cabinet.

Stones were thrown at cars thought to be carrying MPs away from the scene.

Inside the chamber, jubilant demonstrators took up the seats of the deputies and posed for photos.

Earlier, Mr Sadr, who was in the southern city of Najaf, warned that the government would fall if reforms were not made.

"Either corrupt [officials] and quotas go or the entire government will be brought down and no-one will be exempt from that," he said.

"I stand by the people today, no-one else, and boycott all the politicians, except those who want real reforms, with all transparency and honesty, waiting for the great popular uprising and the major revolution to stop the march of the corrupt."

Mr Sadr wants Prime Minister Abadi to commit to a plan to replace ministers with non-partisan technocrats.

Powerful parties in parliament have refused to approve the change for several weeks.

Earlier this week, hundreds of thousands of people marched towards the Green Zone to protest against the political deadlock.

Iraq's system of sharing government jobs has long been criticised for promoting unqualified candidates and encouraging corruption.

Mr Abadi, who came to power in 2014, has promised to stamp out corruption and ease tensions with the Sunni Muslim minority.

Escalation

A new protest outside the zone escalated after parliament again failed to reach a quorum on Saturday (local time).

Groups marched on the district soon after the end of a televised appearance by Mr Sadr, although he did not call for the storming of parliament.

The protesters tried to stop lawmakers attempting to flee the building.

Inside the chamber, jubilant demonstrators took up the seats of the deputies and posed for photos.

One protester, Ali Mohammed, said they were angry at the politicians' failure to act.

"The people have come to the right place, to rule themselves," he told Reuters news agency.

"The people are now staging a sit-in inside parliament. Our legitimate and only demand is to dismiss the government and replace it with an independent cabinet of technocrats."

The state of emergency declared does not feature a curfew.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini criticised the protesters' actions, saying it was in the interests of the Iraqi people to restore order rapidly.

"It appears a deliberate disruption of the democratic process," she said in a statement.

'Lockdown'

The protesters are reported to have begun ransacking parliament buildings. United Nations and embassy staff were on lockdown inside their compounds, Reuters reports.

Iraq's system of sharing government jobs has long been criticised for promoting unqualified candidates and encouraging corruption.

Mr Abadi, who came to power in 2014, has promised to stamp out corruption and ease sectarian tensions, but he has failed to far to introduce a new technocratic cabinet.

A survey by the Pew Research Centre in 2011 found that 51 percent of Iraqi Muslims identified themselves as Shia, compared with 42 percent Sunni.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, a car bomb targeted a group of Shia Muslim pilgrims on Saturday, killing at least 21 people.

Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr speaks during a press conference in the holy Shiite city of Najaf on April 30, 2016.

Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Photo: AFP

Who is Moqtada Sadr?

The Shia cleric and his militia group, the Mehdi Army, gained prominence after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, galvanising anti-US sentiment.

Mr Sadr's followers clashed repeatedly with US forces, whose withdrawal the cleric consistently demanded.

An arrest warrant was issued for Mr Sadr in 2004 in connection with the murder of a rival cleric.

His militia was also blamed for the torture and killing of thousands of Sunnis in the sectarian carnage of 2006 and 2007. Mr Sadr fled to Iran during that period.

In 2011, Mr Sadr returned from his self-imposed exile to Iraq, taking a more conciliatory tone and calling for Iraqi unity and peace.

- BBC

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