Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Protesters breach Green Zone wall and storm parliament

Thousands of protesters managed to break into the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad and storm the parliament buildings inside the zone.

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The action came after politicians again failed to approve new ministers. The protesters have demanded a cabinet of neutral technocrats to replace the existing members, who are accused of corruption. The PM, Haider al-Abadi, has been trying to accede to the demands for reform but has been blocked from doing so by members of parliament who profit from the existing system. Although some ministers had been approved earlier in the week, on Saturday a quorum was not reached.
The storming of parliament follows weeks of turmoil. There was a sit in by some MPs and fights in the chamber, plus attempts to fire the speaker. Earlier in the day, a bomb targeting Shia pilgrims near Baghdad killed at least 23 people. The action in the Green Zone started just minutes after cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ended a news conference in the city of Najaf in which he condemned the political deadlock. He had earlier led some of the protests against the government. He had threatened to storm the Green Zone back in March but did not give an order to do so after his news conference. Al-Sadr complained politicians "refused to end corruption and refused to end quotas". He said that he and his supporters would not take part in "any political process in which there are any type of quotas." Government posts have long been shared on the basis of political and sectarian quotas. Al-Sadr was active in opposing the Americans earlier in the Iraq war. While he is a Shia, he is at the same time a nationalist who wants to see the Sunni minority integrated into a unified Iraqi government. He no doubt sees it as in the national interest to have a neutral government which would work for the benefit of all Iraqis rather than particular sects. Al-Sadr opposes more American ground troops in Iraq.
The Green Zone is the most secure and heavily guarded area in Baghdad. Security forces did not try to stop the protesters by force. The protesters attached heavy cables to the heavy concrete blast wall and managed to create an opening. One protester shouted: "You are not staying here! This is your last day in the Green Zone." The protesters headed to parliament where some rioted, rampaged through the buildings and broke into offices. Other protesters shouted to be peaceful. The security forces did not try to prevent protesters from entering the parliament even though they were present. A barbed wire was stretched across one road to prevent lawmakers from escaping. Several cars thought to belong to parliamentarians were destroyed.
Baghdad Operations Command has declared a state of emergency with all roads into the capital being closed. Additional forces have been deployed around the city. Checkpoints at city entrances were closed. However, violence during the protests remains limited. One protester said to the Kurdish news channel Rudaw, pointing to chocolates on the desk of lawmakers, said: “People have nothing to eat. The lawmakers are sitting here eating chocolates and mocking our pain.” To many Iraqis the Green Zone symbolizes tyranny, occupation, and corruption. The ruling elite in Iraq seems unresponsive to the needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens. It is this discontent that Al-Sadr is able to organize and use he hopes as a means to force reform. The security forces must have been supportive of the protesters as there were no reports of shots fired or perhaps they simply wanted to avoid bloodshed.
The UN, U.S. and others are concerned that the political crisis will interfere with the fight against the Islamic State. It remains to be seen if PM Abadi is able to regain control and pass reforms that will satisfy the demands of the protesters.