Iraqi Protestors Withdraw From Unprecedented Occupation of Baghdad's Green Zone

Shiite protestors aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr overran Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone on Saturday, demanding an end to government corruption.
May 1, 2016, 6:50pm
Photo by Karim Kadim/AP

The organizers behind a march on Baghdad's Green Zone called on protesters to leave the heavily-fortified government area on Sunday — just 24 hours after hundreds of Shiites aligned with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr carried out an unprecedented occupation the country's parliament.

Once they had breeched the zone's perimeter yesterday and entered the Iraqi parliament building, protesters jubilantly waved flags, took photographs, and condemned endemic corruption within Iraqi politics.

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Iraqi officials declared a state of emergency over the unrest.

The Green Zone once housed Saddam Hussein's palace and parade grounds, and later served as the base for US-occupying forces. Now, it represents what Sadr has described as a "bastion of corruption" — where political deal making happens behind a buttress of barbed wire and security checkpoints, far from the public eye.

Related: Iraq: Islamic State Claims Deadly Suicide Bombing as Sadr Supporters Storm Parliament

The Green Zone has also served as a symbolic division between the wealthy and powerful, and the disenfranchised. In an interview with Kurdish news channel Rudaw, a protester inside parliament pointed to chocolates on lawmakers' desks. "People have nothing to eat," he said. "The lawmakers are sitting here eating chocolates and mocking our pain."

"We are sick of problems, we are sick of this parliament and the failed government," another protester told Rudaw.

Not the usual scene in — Yassin K. Fawaz (@YassinFawaz)May 1, 2016

Sadr has become a powerful figurehead for a new era of Iraqi politics. He was a steadfast opponent to the US occupation and even led an armed opposition to the presence of American troops. He described Saturday's episode as the beginning of a "revolution."

"History will record the birth of a new Iraq, from the ashes of corruption and the corrupt," Sadr said, according to the Washington Post.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is scrambling to regain control over his government, and has ordered the arrest of protesters who damaged government property and who attacked one lawmaker. Abadi has called on the interior ministry to pursue those demonstrators.

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Abadi came to power in 2014 on promises to stamp out corruption. But those promises have not come to fruition — and skepticism toward Iraq's central government is widespread. Transparency International found that Iraqis overwhelmingly suspected graft within their own government.

Abadi's struggles began last summer, when protesters took to the streets of Baghdad in the middle of an intense heatwave, angry at the government's failure to provide basic services and infrastructure to its people 12 years after the US invasion.

Sadr believes that quota system, which was brought in after the 2003 invasion to ensure representation among the country's various sectarian groups, is hampering the country's progress. Under that system, cabinet positions are divvied up proportionally to the country's various sects. Abadi's efforts to replace those party affiliates with technocratic outsiders have been stymied by bickering in an increasingly dysfunctional and divided parliament.

The New York Times reported that the ease with which protesters were able to enter the Green Zone "suggested that the security forces — and perhaps Mr. Abadi himself, as some hinted — were supportive of the protesters."

Iraqi security personnel and Sadr's militiamen formed a joint force to control crowds of protesters, most of whom had left parliament, a source in Sadr's office told Reuters. Security forces reportedly fired tear gas and warning shots to prevent people from entering the parliament building last night. As night fell, demonstrators set up tents at a nearby parade ground under triumphal arches made from crossed swords held by hands modeled on those of Saddam Hussein.

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After Abadi convened with high-ranking Iraqi officials on Sunday, he released a statement promising "radical reforms of the political process" and condemned the invasion of the Green Zone as "a dangerous infringement of the state's prestige."

Aftermath of the 'peaceful' protests in the Green Zone yesterday. — Naka J Alkhzraji (@NAlkhzraji)May 1, 2016

On Sunday, as those high-ranking officials met to come up with a solution to the political crisis, two suicide car bombings rocked Samawa — a southern Iraqi city — killing at least 32 people and wounding 75.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the two blasts, and said in a statement that they had targeted a gathering of special forces in Samawa – which lies 170 miles southeast of Baghdad. The first explosion occurred near a local government building, where the meeting was taking place. The second car bomb was detonated about 65 yards away, as security forces responded to the first site. Attacks on Samawa are relatively rare. The city, the capital of the Muthanna province, lies deep in Iraq's Shi'ite heartland — far from the northern and western predominantly Sunni areas where IS has captured territory.

The death toll is expected to rise.

The twin bombings in Samawa followed other attacks in and around Baghdad on Saturday, as the Green Zone chaos was underway.

IS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in a busy outdoor food market in a southeastern suburb of Baghdad. At least 19 people were killed and 48 wounded. The attack was reportedly aimed at Shiite pilgrims.

A second explosion near a Shiite militia checkpoint in Baghdad's Dora district killed two and wounded three.

According to a new UN report issued on Sunday, at least 741 Iraqis were killed in April due to ongoing violence – a decline from the previous month, where 1,119 people were killed. In April, Baghdad was Iraq's most violence-wracked city, according to the UN.

Related: Vice President Biden Makes a Surprise Visit to Iraq Amid Political Crisis

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