By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and SAMYA KULLAB
BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of followers of an influential Shiite cleric breached Iraq’s parliament on Saturday, for the second time this week, protesting government formation efforts lead by his rivals, an alliance of Iran-backed groups. The alliance called for counter-protests, raising the specter of civil strife.
Iraqi security forces initially used tear gas and sound bombs to try to repel the demonstrators and caused several injuries. Once inside, the protesters declared an open-ended sit-in and claimed they would not disperse until their demands are answered.
As the numbers inside the parliament swelled, the police backed off. An expected parliament session did not take place Saturday and there were no lawmakers in the hall. By late afternoon, the Ministry of Health said that about 125 people had been injured in the violence — 100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces.
Earlier in the day and heeding the calls of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the demonstrators used ropes to pull down cement barricades leading to the gate of Iraq’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and embassies.
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 the federal elections held last October.
With neither side willing to concede, and al-Sadr intent on derailing the government formation efforts lead by his rivals, Iraq’s limbo and political paralysis has ushered in a new era of instability in the beleaguered country.
Al-Sadr has used his followers as leverage against his rivals and has ordered them to occupy parliament on previous occasions — in 2016, his followers did the same 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 had reset the country’s political order.
Later Saturday, al-Sadr’s rivals in the Coordination Framework — an alliance of Shiite parties backed by Iran — 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.
“Civil peace is a red line and all Iraqis must be prepared to defend it in all possible, peaceful, means,” the alliance said.
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 U.N. said.
Meanwhile, al-Sadr supporters — many had come 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 their government formation efforts by naming Mohammed al-Sudani as their nominee for the premiership.
On Saturday, Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi directed security forces to protect demonstrators and asked them to keep their protest peaceful, according to a statement. Inside the parliament building, the defenses of the security forces grew less intense and many were seen sitting and conversing with demonstrators.
Some protesters began moving from the parliament toward the Judicial Council building.
“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 Coordination Framework alliance the majority they needed to move forward with the process.
Many protesters wore black to mark the days leading to Ashura, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed and one of Shiite Islam’s most important figures. Al-Sadr’s messaging to his followers has used the important day in Shiite Islam to kindle protests.