Iraqi leaders struggle to break crisis, hundreds protest in Green Zone

Reuters News
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Posted: May 01, 2016 10:42 AM

By Ahmed Rasheed and Stephen Kalin

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other political leaders promised on Sunday to deliver on radical reforms and stem a deepening crisis as protesters held an unprecedented sit-in inside Baghdad's heavily fortified government district.

Iraq has endured months of wrangling prompted by Abadi's attempt to replace party-affiliated ministers with technocrats as part of an anti-corruption drive. A divided parliament has failed to approve the proposal amid scuffles and protests.

Deep frustration among Iraqis over the deadlock culminated in a dramatic breach on Saturday of the Green Zone by supporters of powerful Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr wants to see Abadi's proposed technocrat government approved, ending a quota system that its opponents say has encouraged corruption. Powerful parties have resisted, fearing the dismantling of patronage networks that have sustained the political elite's wealth and influence for more than a decade.

Abadi has warned continued turmoil could hamper the war against Islamic State, which controls vast swathes of northern and western Iraq.

He convened a high-level meeting on Sunday with Iraq's president, parliament speaker and political bloc leaders. Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who heads the Dawa Party, and representatives of Sadr were not there, a politician who attended told Reuters.

In a statement from the presidential residence published after the meeting, the leaders said meetings would continue in coming days "to ensure radical reforms of the political process."

They also called the breach of the Green Zone "a dangerous infringement of the state's prestige and a blatant constitutional violation that must be prosecuted."

Two suicide car bombs claimed by Islamic State killed at least 32 people and wounded 75 others on Sunday in the center of the southern city of Samawa, police and medics said.

GREEN ZONE: "EVEN THE PLANTS ARE DIFFERENT"

The Green Zone, a 10-square-kilometre district on the banks of the Tigris River which also houses many foreign embassies, has been off-limits to most Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Its breach is unprecedented.

Hundreds of people pulled down and stormed over concrete blast walls, celebrating inside parliament and attacking several deputies. After nightfall, they moved to Grand Festivities Square as security reinforcements arrived from the army, police and Sadr's militia.

Many protesters, including some women and children, remained in the square on Sunday. Most took refuge inside event halls from 37 degree Celsius heat, while others lay on the grass or cooled off in a large fountain topped with a military statue.

The protesters had been restricted to using one Green Zone entrance where personal searches were conducted separately by Sadr's militia and then military guards.

Riot police, Humvees fixed with machine guns, and an armored military vehicle were stationed around the sit-in area, but protesters were permitted to come and go freely.

State television said the security forces had reopened the entrances to Baghdad which had been closed a day earlier.

Asked how long they planned to stay, multiple protesters responded: "Until victory, God willing."

A demonstrator named Humam said he had entered the Green Zone on Saturday evening "for patriotic reasons" and was waiting with his two sons for instructions from protest organizers.

The 32-year-old said he was shocked by the contrast between the poverty in which most Iraqis like him live and the comparative luxury inside the central district, which he had never entered before.

"There is electricity and street lighting, there is more water here than I expected. Even the plants are different," he said. "It is the people's right to enter this area because (the politicians) are living in conditions that don't even exist in Iraq. I didn't imagine this existed in Iraq."

Another 50-year-old protester from Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood who referred to parliament as "the council of traitors" said he wanted to see the president, prime minister and parliament speaker removed.

"They have done nothing good for Iraq, only destruction, sectarian wars, hunger and no services."

The politician who attended Sunday's meeting said leaders had agreed that the protesters must evacuate, either peacefully or with the intervention by police.

The demonstrators, though, showed no sign of leaving voluntarily.

Jabra al-Taie, a leftist activist in the square, said she expected the sit-in to last at least until Wednesday when parliament might convene next following a week-long Shi'ite pilgrimage.

(Additional reporting by Thaier al-Sudani; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)