Iraq: Protesters storm parliament in support of anti-Iran cleric Muqtada al-Sadr

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Hundreds of protesters have stormed the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad against a prime ministerial candidate who is supported by parties backed by Iran.

The majority of the men were followers of Shia Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who had called on them to breach the city’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign embassies.

Riot police using a water cannon tried to stop the protesters as they climbed cement barrier walls and fences to enter the zone on Wednesday.

In parliament, demonstrators walked on tables, rifled through folders, sat in chairs of MPs – who were not present – waved Iraqi flags, carried images of Mr al-Sadr and chanted anti-Iran slogans.

As the demonstration was taking place, caretaker prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for calm and restraint and for protesters to “immediately withdraw” from the area.

Reports state that the security guards did not try to stop the protest that Mr al-Sadr called over the selection of Mohammed al-Sudani as the official nominee of the Co-ordination Framework bloc, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shia parties and their allies.

Since the federal election in October 2021, the national political system in Iraq has been in a deadlock as it has been unable to form a stable coalition government or elect a new head of state.

Mr al-Sadr had sought to form a government with Sunni and Kurdish allies that excluded Iran-backed parties led by his long-time rival, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Protesters climbing fences of the Green Zone, where government buildings are based (Adil al-Khazali/AP)

But Mr al-Sadr recently stepped down from the process of forming a new government. Despite winning the most seats in the October election, he did not have enough MPs to get the majority required to elect Iraq’s new prime minister.

In protest over the setback, his MPs – that had held about 70 of 329 seats – resigned from parliament.

In a statement, the Framework coalition said they had known of “calls urging chaos, stirring up strife”, within the last 24 hours since nominating Mr al-Sudani.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters waved Iraqi flags and chanted anti-Iran slogans (AP)

Hours after his followers occupied parliament, Mr al-Sadr issued a statement on Twitter telling them their message had been received, and “to return safely to your homes”. Shortly after, protesters began making their way out of the parliament building under the supervision of security guards.

The United Nations said in a statement that Iraqis had the right to protest but that it was “essential that demonstrations remain peaceful and comply with the law”.

The latest protest was the largest since the elections were held, and the second time this month that Mr al-Sadr has mobilised his supporters en masse to send a warning to his rivals of potential escalation if a government forms with Mr al-Sudani at the helm.

Earlier in July, tens of thousands of people heeded Mr al-Sadr’s call for a mass prayer and filled up al-Falah Street wearing white shrouds and carrying Iraqi flags. The prayer service was also a tribute to Mr a-Sadr’s father, cleric Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr.

Some of the protesters held posters of Mr al-Sadr to show their allegiance (AP)

His father had held Friday prayer services in defiance of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s before he was assassinated in 1999. The US-led invasion of Iraq toppled the regime which led to Saddam’s execution in 2006.

In 2016, Mr al-Sadr’s followers stormed the Green Zone and entered the parliament building to demand political reform. There have been reports that officials had been attacked.