Protestors – followers of the cleric muqtada al-sadri – Pledged to hold an open sit-in to derail the efforts of their rivals from Iran-backed political groups to form the country’s next government. Their demands are lofty: early elections, constitutional amendments and the ouster of al-Sadr’s rivals.
Events have catapulted IraqPolitics center for the country to deepen into a political crisis as a power struggle between the two major Shia groups.
On Sunday, the sit-in appeared more of a joyous celebration than a political protest – al-Sadr followers were dancing, praying and shouting slogans inside parliament in praise of their leader. In between, he took a nap on the mattresses in the grand hall.
The scene was completely different from Saturday’s, when protesters used ropes and chains to tear down concrete walls around heavy fortifications. green area In BaghdadThen there was a flood in the assembly building. This was the second such violation last week, but this time they did not spread peacefully.
Iraqi security forces first fired tear gas shells and subliminal grenades to disperse the demonstrators. The health ministry said around 125 people were injured in the violence – 100 protesters and 25 members of security forces. Within hours, the police withdrew, leaving Parliament for the protesters.
The takeover of parliament showed that al-Sadr was using his large grassroots level as a pressure tactic against his rivals in the coordination framework – a coalition of Shia parties backed by Iran and led by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. In – after his party was not able to form a government despite winning the most seats in the federal elections held last October.
Neither side is ready to accept and al-Sadr intends to derail efforts by Iran-backed groups to form a government.
But there were red lines – the road to the nearby Judicial Council building was closed, with heavy security around it. Demolition of the building would amount to a coup, and al-Sadr ordered his followers to stay away from it.
The protesters appeared ready for the long haul – or at least for an extended sit-in.
Tuk-tuks are a mainstay of transport in the impoverished Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, from where the cleric received most of the protesters to and from parliament for a fee of 1,000 Iraqi dinars, or 60 cents.
Coolers were installed and water bottles were passed around. A child distributed sweets while teenagers sold juice from sacks. Some women – a minority in the male-dominated display – sweep the floor.
Outside, food packets and other trash littered the lane leading to the Parliament gates, while trucks brought large pans of rice and beans to feed the protesters. Nearby signs read: “Revolution Restaurant”
Pictures of al-Sadr were hanging everywhere. Several demonstrators smoked, threw cigarette pieces on the floor and cigarette smoke filled the gathering.
A young man, Sameer Aziz Abbas, sold popsicles. “I’m here to live,” he said, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
One of the demonstrators, Haider Jameel, took the seat of one of the most powerful political figures in Iraq, Speaker of Parliament, Mohamed Halbowsi, and looked from there at his riotous fellow demonstrators. Following the capture of parliament by al-Sadr’s followers, Halbowsi suspended future sessions until further notice.
“We will not back down until our demands are met,” Jameel said.
Al-Sadr’s support base is largely poor Iraqis living in Baghdad’s slums, attracted by calls against corruption. But al-Sadr is also an establishment figure, with a number of civil servants appointed by his party throughout the state apparatus.
By opting to hold his protest before Ashura, the holy day of Shia Islam, al-Sadr capitalized on a moment when religious fervor was rampant – protesters performed religious rituals inside parliament. In the afternoon an imam offered prayers in the central lobby.
Ashura commemorates the assassination of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Iraqis usually march in thousands to the holy city of Karbala to celebrate this day and sentiments run high in the days ahead.
According to Shia religious belief, one way to show love for Imam Hussein is to rise up against persecution.
Marcin Alshamri, a post-doctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution, said al-Sadr’s message to his followers is in the context of the pilgrimage.
For the protesters, most of them young, the sit-in offers a chance to move closer to the seat of power in a system that has long neglected them. Earlier they could not enter the heavily fortified area without permission.
When Meethak Muhi took his turn to sit on the seat of the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, he tied himself to the chair with a dupatta.
“Parliament, it’s over,” he shouted.