Iraqis demonstrate near Green Zone, call for reforms
Thousands of Iraqis demonstrated near the heavily fortified Green Zone in the capital, Baghdad, Friday, supporting calls by influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for reforms.
The protesters defied a government ban that called protests near the Green Zone as unauthorized, cutting coils of barbed wire and pushing aside barriers to cross Al-Jumhuriya Bridge, which leads to the gate of the complex in central Baghdad.
Sadr had warned in previous demonstrations that if the government ignores his calls for economic reform, his supporters would storm the Green Zone, which is home to Iraq’s political elite as well as most of the foreign embassies.
The Najaf-based cleric wants a reshuffle in the cabinet of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi so that more technocrats could take office. He has threatened Abadi with a no-confidence vote if he fails to carry out the reform.
“Let’s get rid of them, they’re all thieves!” chanted the demonstrators who were wearing black, many of them carrying Iraqi flags. Some even were aiming to hold their weekly Friday prayer at a gate that leads to the parliament building.
Sadr called on his supporters on Thursday to remain in front of the gates of the sprawling Green Zone until his demands are met.
That prompted some protesters to lay out sheets and blankets on the street and under trees to start a sit-in.
“The sit-ins have started in front of the Green Zone gates as a message to the corrupt people who live there,” said Ibrahim al-Jaberi, a local official from Sadr’s movement. He said the sit-down will be open-ended.
Another demonstrator said, “We’ll stay days, weeks or months if needed, until the government implements reform and sacks all the corrupt politicians.”
Security forces imposed a lockdown on many major streets and bridges in Baghdad, while additional checkpoints and police patrols were deployed to maximize security in the city. Helicopters were hovering overhead.
“All entrances to Baghdad have been blocked and some main streets and bridges are also closed, especially those leading to the Green Zone,” a police colonel said.
Sadr has urged his supporters to refrain from clashes with security forces guarding the Green Zone, an area he described in his Thursday statement as “a bastion of support for corruption.”
Sadr is from an influential clerical family, which is known in Iraq for its steadfastness against the former dictator Saddam Hussein. The young Shia cleric launched a strong campaign against US troops following their 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The weekly demonstrations in the capital have helped Sadr to restore some of political influence he had lost in recent years. The cleric has also distanced himself from some corrupt members in his own Ahrar bloc in the parliament, further boosting his image in Iraq as a nationalist figure. He also runs a group called Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades).