Thousands of protesters stormed the Iraqi Parliament on Saturday, the second time in a week, to protest the formation of a government that would exclude Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
According to Iraqi state television, the Iraqi Ministry of Health said around 100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces were injured during the clashes. Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi stated the government body suspended parliamentary sessions until further notice.
Iraqi security forces used tear gas and stun grenades to break up a sit-in, with the protesters refusing to leave until they received their demands.
Al-Sadr is a Shiite cleric and Iraqi political leader who won Iraq’s last parliamentary elections in October. The protest serves to oppose efforts to form the “Coordination Framework,” a government led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other rivals of al-Sadr, as well as an alliance of Shia parties backed by Iran.
The protesters used ropes and chains to pull down the cement barricades that lead to the gate of Iraq’s heavily protected Green Zone, where Iraq’s parliament, government buildings and foreign embassies are located.
Throughout the day, al-Sadr called his supporters, not just from Baghdad but also from the surrounding provinces, to continue to gather at parliament. Al-Sadr’s supporters raised his portrait along with the Iraqi flag, chanting against the meddling of foreign states in Iraq, which is generally believed to be a thinly veiled reference to Iran’s influence in the country.
“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 one protester, Raad Thabet. “We responded to al-Sadr’s call.”
Although al-Sadr and his political supporters won the largest number of seats in last year’s elections, he was not able to form a government. Consequently, Iraq has found itself in a political vacuum for the past 10 months.
“With neither side appearing willing to concede, and al-Sadr intent on derailing 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,” the Associated Press wrote. “Al-Sadr has used his followers as leverage against rivals and ordered them to occupy the parliament in the past – as in 2016, during the administration of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.”
“The world is watching the Iraq situation with concern because, if the crisis continues, it could paralyze the Iraqi economy and stop the flow of oil, cause world oil prices to rise and damage the world economy,” Iraqi analyst Alaa Mustapha told Iraqi state TV.
The United Nations has called on Iraqi leaders to de-escalate the tensions.
“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. stated.
Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi also 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.
Members of the Coordination Framework on Saturday called on their own supporters to conduct “peaceful” counter-protests to defend the state, according to a statement from the group.
“Civil peace is a red line and all Iraqis must be prepared to defend it in all possible, peaceful means,” the alliance stated.
There are fears that the call for counter-protests could lead to large-scale clashes and bloodshed not seen since 2007.