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World & Nation

In Iraq, supporters of cleric Muqtada Sadr shock the leadership

Iraq protests

A supporter of Muqtada Sadr holds a portrait of the Shiite cleric during a protest against corruption in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood on May 6, 2016. 

(Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty Images)

Some things, once broken, can never be fixed. That thought has dominated conversations in Baghdad’s capital in the week since supporters of a powerful Shiite Muslim cleric stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Unlike previous demonstrations that have ebbed and flowed over the last year with little political effect, the thousands of protesters who ransacked parliament and accosted fleeing lawmakers shocked the country’s perpetually bickering leaders and left many wondering whether the country’s embattled prime minister will survive in office.

As supporters of the cleric, Muqtada Sadr, left the manicured lawns of an area that had been largely off-limits to them for 13 years, Sadr threatened to bring down the government and force new elections if the legislature fails to approve a Cabinet of technocrats — one not dictated by ethnic and sectarian quotas.

More than a week later, the reverberations could still be felt.

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Over the weekend, Baghdad’s always snarled traffic was made worse by additional checkpoints and barriers to thwart any further demonstrations near the Green Zone, home to many government buildings and embassies. Prime Minister Haider Abadi replaced the commander in charge of the zone’s security. Parliamentarians refused to reconvene without guarantees of their protection. And the United States dispatched an additional 25 U.S. Marines to bolster security at the U.S. Embassy compound.

Yet the moves mattered little to the thousands who once again took to the streets in the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City on Friday to protest against a government they see as ineffective and corrupt.

“This is a historical turning point. The break-in created a rift in the failed political process, and this is what we want to happen so as to reform it,” said Mohsen Kaabi, an elderly man who carried a blue sign that read, “We demand the thief of public money be held accountable.”

Another man standing nearby, Mahmoud Salihi, agreed, saying it had “revealed the truth about those in parliament.”

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“If they were clean and honest, they would have stayed and talked to us, asked us what we wanted. But they know they are thieves, so they ran away,” he said.

At the heart of the populist anger is deep frustration with the government’s inability to provide the most basic services such as electricity and garbage collection. (Trash heaps are a common sight throughout Baghdad’s streets.)

“Iraq is a rich country with oil, but for 13 years they haven’t solved the issue of power,” said Mohammed Mahameed, a taxi driver who spoke wistfully of the round-the-clock electricity in neighboring Jordan where he visited last year.

“In the summer, every four hours we only get one hour of electricity. How is this possible? Where is the oil going?”

Security is also a concern, as the country faces the persistent threat of Islamic State. In 2014, Baghdad narrowly avoided being overrun by the extremist group by enlisting the help of militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units.

“The mere fact that you leave your home, or drop off your kids at school, and worry whether you or they will return home is the biggest proof of the corruption of the government,” said Maytham Hillo, a dermatologist and leftist political author who was speaking at a weekly discussion group called “For those who dare to be reasonable.”

The mere fact that you leave your home, or drop off your kids at school, and worry whether you or they will return home is the biggest proof of the corruption of the government.
Maytham Hillo, dermatologist and political author

Plunging oil prices and a bloated public sector have led to a deficit that the government, which ranks a dismal 161 out of 168 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, is ill-equipped to handle.

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Abadi has tried to enact the reforms demanded by Sadr and his followers, but has been repeatedly thwarted by the country’s entrenched ethnic and sectarian-based political factions.

The storming of the Green Zone came after Abadi’s third attempt to get approval for a Cabinet not formed according to quotas established after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The attempt was postponed for lack of a quorum.

The political turmoil has spurred an act of political sleight of hand by Sadr, a stridently anti-U.S. leader whose followers in the Mahdi Army militia were accused of sectarian violence against Sunni Muslims, but who now presents himself as a unifying figure against corruption.

At Friday sermons in Sadr City, Sadrist clerics insisted this was an issue for all Iraqis, regardless of sect or ethnicity, while the crowd chanted, “No, no to America, no, no to Britain, no, no to Israel, yes, yes to reform.”

They also chanted slogans against Iranian intervention in the country, a sign of Sadr’s complicated relationship with the Islamic Republic’s leaders, even while the cleric left for Tehran last week for what his office described as a two-month spiritual retreat.

Those allied with the cleric insist that Sadr’s calls for reform are not part of a power play.

“Muqtada al Sadr does not know how to be sycophantic, he only serves the Iraqi people,” said parliamentarian Hakim Zamili, adding that such accusations were the result of fear on the part of Sadr’s enemies.

“There is no going back, and we will now have the project of reform, to change to a professional independent government that does not belong to the parties.”

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Yet many view Sadr’s maneuvers with suspicion.

“Sadr is part of the government, of the corruption and the quota system, part of the sectarian fighting. It’s as if he has transformed the anger on the streets into a political bloc against other political parties,” said Hillo, pointing to both Sadr’s history of switching sides and his religious following.

“We cannot just forgive Sadr for what he did.... He is not trustworthy.”

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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