Iraqi protesters breach parliament building in Baghdad

Protesters gather on a bridge, one holding a placard with a cleric's photo.
A protester displays a poster depicting Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr on a bridge leading toward the Green Zone area in Baghdad on Saturday.
(Anmar Khalil / Associated Press)

Thousands of followers of an influential Shiite cleric stormed into Iraq’s parliament Saturday, for the second time last week, protesting efforts at government formation led by his rivals, an alliance of Iran-backed groups.

The alliance showed signs of internal division, with some calling for counterprotests — a development that would raise the specter of civil strife — and others later urging dialogue.

Iraqi security forces initially used tear gas and stun grenades to try to repel the demonstrators, who are followers of cleric Muqtada Sadr. Once inside, the protesters declared a sit-in and said they would not disperse until their demands were answered.


As the numbers of protesters swelled, the police backed off. An expected parliamentary session did not take place, and no lawmakers were in the hall. By late afternoon, about 125 people had been injured in the violence: 100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces, according to the Ministry of Health.

Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi suspended future sessions until further notice.

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Earlier in the day, heeding Sadr’s calls, the demonstrators used ropes and chains to pull down concrete barricades leading to the gate of Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and embassies.

Sadr is using his grass-roots following as a pressure tactic against his rivals, after his party was not able to form a government despite winning the most seats in the federal elections held in October.

With neither side appearing willing to concede, and Sadr intent on derailing government formation efforts led by his rivals, the political paralysis has ushered in a new era of instability for Iraq.


Sadr has in the past used his followers as leverage against rivals and ordered them to occupy the parliament — as in 2016, during the administration of Prime Minister Haider Abadi.

Now, 10 months since the last election, 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 order.

Sadr’s rivals in the Coordination Framework — an alliance of Shiite parties backed by Iran and led by former Prime Minister Nouri Maliki — showed signs of internal divisions later Saturday.

At first, the alliance called for “peaceful” counterprotests to defend the state, raising fears of possible street clashes.

“Civil peace is a red line, and all Iraqis must be prepared to defend it in all possible, peaceful, means,” the alliance said. Three Shiite officials said this statement was written by Maliki and militia leader and political figure Qais Khazali.

Later, Hadi Amiri, also an alliance leader, issued a statement inviting our “dear brother” Sadr to “a serious dialogue” to find a way out of the impasse. Maliki appeared to pivot also and issued a statement saying the day’s tumultuous events had prompted him to call for dialogue with Sadr.

Maliki is Sadr’s chief rival; both men are powerful in their own right.

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

“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.

In a speech, caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi called for restraint.

“The political blocs must sit down and negotiate and reach an understanding for the sake of Iraq and the Iraqis,” he said, ordering security forces to protect demonstrators.

Shiite leader Ammar Hakim — who is allied with the Coordination Framework but has announced that he will not participate in the next government — echoed Kadhimi’s words and called for both sides to make concessions.

Throughout the day, Sadr’s supporters — who had come from other provinces, as well as from Baghdad, to stage the sit-in — continued to throng the parliament building, raising the Iraqi flag and portraits of Sadr. They chanted against the intrusion of foreign states, a veiled reference to Iran.

It was the second time in four days that the cleric ordered his followers to take their cause inside the Green Zone.

On Wednesday, after protesters stormed the parliament in a similar fashion, they left shortly after getting inside, at Sadr’s command.

Wednesday’s show of force came after Sadr’s rivals made a step forward in their government formation efforts by naming Mohammed Sudani as their nominee for premier.

Inside the parliament, as the day unfolded, the defenses of the security forces grew less intense, and many were seen sitting and conversing with demonstrators.

“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 protester Raad Thabet, 41. “We responded to ... Sadr’s call.”

Sadr’s party left the government formation talks in June, giving his rivals in the Coordination Framework 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 Muhammad and one of Shiite Islam’s most important figures. Sadr’s messaging to his followers has used the important day in Shiite Islam to kindle protests.

It’s unclear to what extent Saturday’s events could derail efforts to muster enough support for Sudani’s bid for premiership. Maliki had wanted the premier post himself, but audio recordings were leaked in which he purportedly cursed and criticized Sadr and even his own Shiite allies, which effectively sank his candidacy.