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Protesters Storm Baghdad's Green Zone to Denounce Corruption

Hundreds of protesters stormed Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone on Saturday and entered the Parliament building, waving Iraqi flags, snapping photographs, breaking furniture and demanding an end to corruption. The episode deepened a political crisis that has paralyzed Iraq's government for weeks.

As the chaos unfolded in the afternoon — one lawmaker was attacked, and protesters damaged several vehicles near Parliament — the Baghdad Operations Command announced a state of emergency, deploying additional forces around the capital city. Checkpoints at city entrances were closed, even as the protests remained largely nonviolent.

The scenes of protest, circulated in photos and videos on social media sites, were potent illustrations of the anger that has grown during months of protests by Iraqis demanding that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi carry out measures to end sectarian quotas in politics and fight corruption.

The protesters were mostly supporters of the powerful Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Rather than pushing for the ouster of Mr. Abadi, they have largely supported the prime minister as he has sought to make good on promises, still unfulfilled, to improve how the government works.

The ease with which they penetrated the rim of the Green Zone suggested that security forces — and perhaps Mr. Abadi himself, as some hinted — were supportive of the protesters. There were no reports of shots fired, and Mr. Sadr's own militiamen were said to have taken charge of security near Parliament. Later in the evening, security officers fired tear gas and warning shots to prevent more people from entering the enclave.

By nightfall, the protesters were leaving Parliament and gathering in another section of the Green Zone: Celebration Square, an area with a famous statue of giant crossed swords that was once a parade ground for Saddam Hussein. The protesters seemed to be settling in there for the night, and Mr. Abadi said the "security situation in Baghdad is under control."

It will soon become clearer whether the aim of Mr. Sadr and his followers is to nudge politicians who have opposed Mr. Abadi's efforts — their stated goal — or to bring down the government itself.

Just before protesters entered the Green Zone, Mr. Sadr gave a speech from Najaf, in southern Iraq, saying, "I'm waiting for the great popular uprising and the great revolution to stop the march of corrupted officials."

For many protesters, jubilant at having breached the blast walls and razor wire that ring it, the Green Zone was a place they had never been.

One protester inside Parliament, speaking to the Kurdish news channel Rudaw, pointed to chocolates on the desks of lawmakers and said: "People have nothing to eat. The lawmakers are sitting here eating chocolates and mocking our pain."

To Iraqis who have lived through the Hussein reign, the American occupation and the current turmoil, the Green Zone has long symbolized tyranny, occupation and corruption. Above all, it has been a sign of the separation between the people and a ruling elite unresponsive to the aspirations of Iraq's citizens.

The mere presence of protesters in the halls of government adds a new element to Iraq's paralysis as the country struggles to keep up the fight against the Islamic State and faces a collapse in oil prices that has sharply reduced government revenue.

Sajad Jiyad, an adviser to Mr. Abadi, said Saturday that the prime minister was at a military compound inside the Green Zone and was confident that the situation would calm down.

Mr. Abadi, he said, had ordered Special Forces soldiers to seal off the area around Parliament and to organize a peaceful withdrawal of the demonstrators.

The American Embassy in Baghdad said Saturday on Twitter that rumors that Iraqi officials had sought safety in the embassy compound were not true, as were reports that the embassy was evacuating personnel.

The United Nations office in Baghdad said that it was "gravely concerned by today's developments in Baghdad," but that it was still working from its headquarters in the Green Zone.

The United Nations called for all political leaders "to engage in dialogue" and carry out the changes necessary "to draw Iraq out of its political, economic and security crisis."

Parliament was stormed after a session that had been scheduled for Saturday was postponed for lack of a quorum. Mr. Abadi had been expected to introduce several new ministers as part of a promise to overhaul his cabinet and fill it with technocrats instead of politicians beholden to a party or sect.

The political crisis that has gripped Iraq in recent weeks came as the Obama administration announced moves to deepen the American military role in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State, including deploying more soldiers closer to the front lines to assist Iraqi forces, and introducing Apache helicopters gunships into the fight.

Iraqi forces, backed by American airstrikes, have made progress against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in western Anbar Province in recent months.

American advisers have been pressing the Iraqis to speed up their planning for an offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which fell to the Islamic State in 2014.

But as the United States has sought to keep the focus on the war against the Islamic State, Iraq's dysfunctional politics — with Shiite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds struggling to manage the country's affairs — has overshadowed the war.

In recent weeks, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. all rushed to Baghdad to show support for Mr. Abadi and try to refocus attention on the war against the Islamic State.

On Tuesday, Mr. Abadi gained approval for some of the new ministers, but only after a revolt from opposition lawmakers who had called for his ouster and tossed water bottles at him.

Mr. Abadi, a Shiite, rose to the office of prime minister in 2014, just after the Islamic State seized control of the city of Mosul.

He replaced Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, another Shiite. The United States and others blamed Mr. Maliki's sectarian policies for marginalizing the minority Sunnis and allowing the rise of ISIS.

Last summer, during a heat wave, protests erupted in response to electricity shortages and quickly grew into widespread demonstrations against corruption and patronage.

They were backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is the country's most powerful cleric, and Mr. Abadi responded by announcing an ambitious package of measures to fight corruption, trim government and install technocrats in important positions.

But he has failed to carry out his promises, as politicians dependent on patronage and government perquisites stand in his way. Chief among his opponents has been Mr. Maliki, the former prime minister, who many say is working behind the scenes to undermine Mr. Abadi in an attempt to return to power.

This year, Mr. Sadr entered the fray, ostensibly to lend his support and that of his millions of Shiite followers to Mr. Abadi's efforts to push through changes in his government. But many analysts say Mr. Sadr, who in recent years has curtailed his political activities, is trying to reinsert himself into Iraq's political mix.

In his speech on Saturday, Mr. Sadr said, "The main political blocs in this country want a partisan government of sectarian quotas so they can keep their gains and keep stealing."

Mr. Sadr, who controls dozens of seats in Parliament, said he would boycott the government, seeming to suggest that he will allow the crisis, at least for the time being, to play out in the streets.

[Source: By Falih Hassan, Omar Al-Jawoshy and Tim Arango, The New York Times, Baghdad, 30Apr16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 03May16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.