BAGHDAD: Thousands of angry protesters broke into Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone area on Saturday and stormed the Iraqi parliament building after lawmakers again failed to approve new ministers.
Jubilant crowds, most of them supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, invaded the main session hall, shouting slogans glorifying their leader and claiming that they had rooted out corruption.
The capital was already on high alert for a major Shiite pilgrimage, participants in which were targeted in a bombing that killed 23 on Saturday, but extra security measures were taken after protesters stormed the Green Zone.
“You are not staying here! This is your last day in the Green Zone,” shouted one protester as thousands broke in.
Besides the parliament compound, the restricted area in central Baghdad houses the presidential palace, the prime minister’s office and several embassies, including those of the United States and Britain.
Protesters pulled down several slabs of the heavy concrete blast walls that surround the Green Zone to create an opening and also climbed over the barrier.
They then headed to parliament, where some rampaged through the building and broke into offices, while others shouted “peacefully, peacefully” and tried to contain the destruction, an Agence France-Presse journalist said.
Security forces were present but did not confront them.
Some six hours after the Green Zone was stormed and despite the chaos, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued a statement claiming the situation in Baghdad was “under the control of the security forces” and urging protesters to return to “designated protest areas.”
Parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi meanwhile issued a statement that referred to MPs as “representatives of the people, and their servants” – descriptions with which many Iraqis would disagree.
Tear gas was used against protesters but violence did not escalate further, with both sides mostly seen fraternizing.
An AFP photographer said members of the Sadrist militia group Saraya al-Salam were in control of the parliament building and were not permitting protesters to enter.
Demonstrators left parliament and began a sit-in at Ihtifalat Square inside the Green Zone.
Protesters earlier pulled barbed wire across a road leading to one of the Green Zone exits, attempting to prevent some scared lawmakers from fleeing the chaos.
They also attacked and damaged several vehicles they believed belonged to MPs.
Inside the main hall where lawmakers failed to reach a quorum earlier in the day, protesters sat in the MPs’ seats taking “selfies” and shouting slogans.
One protester called a friend on his mobile: “I am sitting in Salim al-Juburi’s chair, I have a meeting, we’ll talk later.”
“We are the ones running this country now, the time of the corrupt is over,” said another, as crowds filled rooms throughout the building.
Parliament failed to reach a quorum on Saturday after approving some of Abadi’s ministerial nominees earlier in the week.
The Green Zone unrest started as Sadr ended a news conference in the Shiite holy city of Najaf during which he condemned the political deadlock.
He had threatened to have his supporters storm the Green Zone last month, but did not order them to enter the area in his Saturday address.
The politicians “refused to end corruption and refused to end quotas,” Sadr said, adding that he and his supporters would not participate in “any political process in which there are any type… of political party quotas.”
Key government posts have for years been shared out based on political and sectarian quotas, a practice demonstrators want to end.
Abadi’s efforts to change the system have been opposed by powerful political parties that rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds.
“The parliament and the government are simply not capable of reforming. They will always defend privilege over reform,” said Zaid al-Ali, a fellow at Princeton University and the author of “The Struggle For Iraq’s Future.”
Given that, “it was entirely predictable that this was going to happen”, said Ali, referring to the storming of the Green Zone.
According to interior ministry officials, the main entrances to Baghdad were temporarily closed, and measures were taken to protect the central bank and the airport.
Security forces had already been on high alert as tens of thousands of Shiite faithful converged on the city for an annual commemoration.
Both Washington and the United Nations have warned that the political crisis could distract from the fight against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group.
IS claimed a bombing that targeted Shiite pilgrims in the Nahrawan area near Baghdad on Saturday, killing at least 23 people and wounding at least 38, security and medical officials said.