Supporters of powerful Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr occupied the country’s parliament on Saturday with no plan to leave, deepening a months-long political standoff.
It is the second time in days that supporters of the firebrand Shiite cleric have forced their way into the legislative chamber, after elections in October last year failed to lead to the formation of a government.
“The demonstrators announce a sit-in until further notice,” al-Sadr’s movement said in a brief statement to journalists carried by state news agency INA.
In multiconfessional and multiethnic Iraq, government formation has involved complex negotiations since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Supporters of al-Sadr, who once led a militia against US and Iraqi government forces, oppose a rival, pro-Iran Shiite bloc’s pick for prime minister — Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.
The post conventionally goes to a figure from Iraq’s Shiite majority.
Al-Sadr’s bloc emerged from elections in October as the biggest parliamentary faction, but was still far short of a majority. The mercurial cleric is now using street protests to pile pressure on his political opponents.
Demonstrators inside the legislature waved Iraqi flags and pictures of the cleric. They crowded the chamber, where some sat at lawmakers’ desks while others milled about, raising their mobile phones to film the occupation. Outside, protesters erected a large tent as they settled in, with volunteers delivering hot meals and bottled water.
Security forces looked on as one man lit a fire in the gardens to warm some tea, another sold cigarettes, and women and children trickled in to join al-Sadr’s other supporters.
Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi said “all parliamentary meetings” had been suspended.
The crowds entered the chamber after thousands of protesters had massed at the end of a bridge leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone before dozens pulled down concrete barriers and ran inside, an Agence France-Presse photographer reported.
Security forces had fired tear gas and water cannon near an entrance to the district, also home to foreign embassies and other government buildings.
Some protesters on the bridge were injured and carried off by demonstrators.
The Iraqi Ministry of Health said at least 100 protesters and 25 security personnel had been hurt.
“All the people are with you, Sayyed Moqtada,” the protesters chanted, using his title as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.
Long a player in Iraqi politics, al-Sadr has a devoted following of millions among the country’s majority Shiite population.
His supporters oppose the candidacy of al-Sudani, the pick for prime minister of the Coordination Framework, an alliance of pro-Iran Shiite factions.
The protests are the latest challenge for a country trying to overcome decades of war.
Despite oil wealth and elevated global crude prices, Iraq remains hobbled by corruption, unemployment and other problems, which sparked a youth-led protest movement in 2019.
Saturday’s demonstration came after crowds of al-Sadr supporters breached the Green Zone and entered the legislature on Wednesday. They left two hours later after al-Sadr told them to.
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