Hundreds of supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Saturday and entered the parliament after lawmakers failed to convene for a vote on overhauling the government.
The protesters, who gathered outside the heavily fortified district housing government buildings and many foreign embassies, crossed a bridge over the Tigris river, chanting, “The cowards ran away!” in apparent reference to lawmakers leaving parliament, a witnesses said.
A guard at a checkpoint said the protesters had not been searched before entering. About 10 members of the armed group loyal to Sadr were checking protesters cursorily as government security forces, who usually conduct careful searches with bomb-sniffing dogs stood by the side, the witness said.
The protesters waved Iraqi flags and chanted, “Peaceful, peaceful!” Some were standing on top of concrete blast walls that form the outer barrier to the Green Zone. Thousands more remained at the gates of the district.
Protesters pulled barbed wire across a road leading to one of the exits of the Green Zone, preventing some scared lawmakers from fleeing the chaos. Several vehicles the protesters believed belonged to lawmakers were attacked and damaged.
Supporters of Sadr, whose fighters once controlled swathes of Baghdad and helped defend the capital from the Islamic State, have been demonstrating for weeks at the gates of the Green Zone, responding to their leader’s call to pressure the government to reform.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wants to replace some ministers – chosen to balance Iraq’s divisions along party, ethnic and sectarian lines – with technocrats to combat corruption, but political parties have resisted the changes.
Abadi has warned any delay to the vote could hamper the war against the Islamic State, which controls vast swathes of northern and western Iraq.
Rudaw TV showed protesters chanting and taking selfies inside the parliament chamber where moments earlier lawmakers had been meeting.
The protest outside the Green Zone escalated after parliament again failed to reach a quorum and approve new ministers. The unrest kicked off minutes after al-Sadr wrapped a news conference in the holy Shia city of Najaf, during which he condemned the political deadlock but did not order supporters to enter the Green Zone.