Iraqi protesters enter the parliament building in Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of supporters of an influential Shiite cleric stormed Iraq’s parliament on Saturday, for the second time this week, to protest government-forming efforts led by rivals, an alliance of government-backed groups. ‘Iran. The alliance has called for counter-protests, raising the specter of civil war.

Iraqi security forces first used tear gas and sound bombs to try to push back the demonstrators and injured several people, reports the Associated Press. Once inside, protesters declared an indefinite sit-in and said they would not disperse until their demands were met.

As the numbers inside parliament grew, the police retreated. An expected parliamentary session did not take place on Saturday and there were no lawmakers in the room.

By late afternoon, the Health Ministry said around 125 people had been injured in the violence – 100 civilians and 25 members of the security forces.

Earlier in the day and responding to pleas from the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, protesters used ropes to pull down cement barricades leading to the gate of Iraq’s Green Zone, which houses government buildings and embassies.

Al-Sadr used his broad supporters as a pressure tactic against his rivals after his party was unable to form a government despite winning the most seats in the federal elections in last October.

With neither side willing to back down and al-Sadr intent on derailing government-formation efforts led by his rivals, Iraq’s limbo and political paralysis ushered in a new era of instability in the beleaguered country.

Al-Sadr used his supporters as leverage against his rivals and ordered them to occupy parliament on several occasions. In 2016, his supporters did the same under the administration of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.

Today, with Iraq in the tenth month since the election, the political vacuum is the longest since the 2003 US invasion reset the political order.

Later Saturday, al-Sadr’s rivals in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Shia parties backed by Iran, called on his supporters to carry out “peaceful” counter-protests in defense of the state, according to a report. group statement. The call raises fears of possible large-scale street battles and bloodshed, not seen since 2007.

“Civil peace is a red line and all Iraqis must be prepared to defend it by all possible and peaceful means,” the statement said.

The United Nations has expressed concern over greater instability and called on Iraqi leaders to de-escalate. “The ongoing escalation is deeply concerning. The voices of reason and wisdom are essential to prevent further violence. All actors are encouraged to de-escalate in the interest of all Iraqis,” the statement read. UN.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr supporters – many of whom had traveled not only from Baghdad but also from other provinces to organize the sit-in – continued to crowd the parliament building, occupying the parliament and sporting the Iraqi flag and portraits of al-Sadr. . They chanted against the intrusion of foreign states, a veiled reference to Iran.

It was the second time in three days that the cleric ordered his supporters to stage a sit-in inside the Green Zone.

On Wednesday, protesters similarly stormed the parliament building but left soon after, on al-Sadr’s orders. They had come to warn their rivals against continuing government formation efforts, after the alliance nominated Mohammed al-Sudani as its candidate for prime minister.

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi ordered security forces to protect protesters and asked them to keep their protest peaceful, a statement said. Inside the parliament building, security force defenses became less intense and many were seen seated and conversing with protesters.

Some protesters started moving from the parliament towards the Judicial Council building.

“We have come today to eliminate the corrupt political class and prevent them from holding a parliamentary session, and to prevent the Cadre from forming a government,” 41-year-old Raad Thabet said. “We answered al-Sadr’s call.”

Al-Sadr’s party walked out of government formation talks in June, giving rivals in the framework alliance the majority they needed to move the process forward.

Many protesters wore black to mark the days leading up to Ashura, which commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most important figures in Shia Islam. Al-Sadr’s messages to his followers used this important day in Shia Islam to trigger protests.

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