BAGHDAD (AP) — Tens of thousands of supporters of a powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric rallied in central Baghdad on Friday to press demands for reform and an end to alleged corruption in the government.
The rally was held under tight security following a devastating Islamic State group attack that killed nearly 300 in Baghdad on July 3. Hundreds of policemen and riot police were deployed, along with members of the Sarayah al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, a Shiite militia led by the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
Earlier this year, al-Sadr's supporters stormed the Green Zone, a sprawling complex on the west bank of the Tigris River housing the prime minister's office, parliament and Western embassies.
Friday's protesters, mostly men in their late teens or early 20s, waved Iraqi flags and chanted slogans as patriotic music blared from loudspeakers.
"Uproot them, they are all thieves," some chanted. A protester held a banner, reading: "We came out demanding reform, nothing else."
Al-Sadr arrived at the rally but had to cut short his speech and left quickly when crowds surged forward, threatening a potentially deadly stampede.
Several protesters were slightly injured as they surged forward or jumped off a ramp to get closer to al-Sadr, whose forces battled American troops during the U.S. 2003-2011 occupation of Iraq.
Friday's rally is the latest challenge by al-Sadr and his followers to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government, which they accuse of not doing enough to combat corruption and introduce reform. The standoff comes at a time when the country is struggling to keep up its prolonged and costly fight against the Islamic State group and address an acute economic crisis caused by plunging in oil prices.