BAGHDAD – With mattresses strewn about, food trucked in and protesters playacting as lawmakers, hundreds of followers of an influential Shiite cleric were camped out Sunday inside the Iraqi parliament after toppling security walls around the building and storming in the previous day.
The protesters — followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — pledged to hold an open-ended sit-in to derail efforts by their rivals from Iran-backed political groups to form the country's next government. Their demands are lofty: early elections, constitutional amendments and the ouster of al-Sadr's opponents.
The developments have catapulted Iraq's politics to center stage, plunging the country deeper into a political crisis as a power struggle unfolds between the two major Shiite groups.
Al-Sadr has not visited the scene but egged his loyalists on, tweeting on Sunday that the sit-in was “a great opportunity to radically challenge the political system, the constitution, and the elections.” He called on all Iraqis to join the “revolution," an indication the sit-in will likely become a drawn-out event.
On Sunday, the sit-in appeared more of a joyous celebration than a political protest — al-Sadr's followers were dancing, praying and chanting slogans inside the parliament, in praise of their leader. In between, they took naps on mattresses lining the grand halls.
It was a scene starkly different from the one on Saturday, when protesters used ropes and chains to topple concrete walls around the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, then flooded into the assembly building. It was the second such breach last week, but this time they did not disperse peacefully.
Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades at first, to try to repel the demonstrators. The Ministry of Health said about 125 people were injured in the violence — 100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces. Within a few hours, the police backed off, leaving the parliament to the protesters.
The takeover of the parliament showed al-Sadr was using his large grassroots following as a pressure tactic against his rivals in the Coordination Framework — an alliance of Shiite parties backed by Iran and lead by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — after his party was not able to form a government despite having won the largest number of seats in the federal elections held last October.
Neither side appears willing to concede and al-Sadr seems intent on derailing government formation efforts by the Iran-backed groups.
But there were red-lines — the road to the judicial council building nearby was closed, with heavy security presence around it. Breaching the building would amount to a coup, and al-Sadr had ordered his followers to steer clear of it.
The protesters appeared prepared for the long-haul — or at least an extended sit-in.
Tuk-tuks, a mainstay of transportation in the impoverished Baghdad suburb of Sadr City from where the cleric derives much of his following, shuttled demonstrators to and from the parliament for a fee of 1,000 Iraqi dinars, or 60 cents.
Coolers were set up and water bottles were passed around. A child handed out sweets while teenagers sold juice from sacks. A few women — a minority in the male-dominated demonstration — swept the floors.
Outside, garbage from food packages and other trash littered the street leading up to the parliament gate while trucks brought in giant cauldrons of steaming rice and beans to feed the protesters. Signs nearby read: “Revolution Restaurant”
Al-Sadr’s portraits hung everywhere. Many protesters smoked, tossing cigarette butts on the floor, and cigarette smoke filled the assembly.
A young man, Samir Aziz Abbas sold popsicles. “I am here to make a living,” he said, wiping the sweat from his brow.
One protester, Haidar Jameel assumed the seat of Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi — among the most powerful political figures in Iraq — and from it, looked on at his rowdy fellow demonstrators. After al-Sadr's followers took over the parliament, Halbousi had suspended future sessions until further notice.
“We will not back down until our demands are met,” Jameel declared.
Al-Sadr's support base consists largely of impoverished Iraqis living in the slums of Baghdad, attracted by calls against corruption. But al-Sadr is also an establishment figure, with many civil servants appointed by his party throughout the state apparatus.
By choosing to stage his protest ahead of the Shiite Islam's holy day of Ashura, al-Sadr capitalized on a moment when religious fervor runs high — protesters performed religious rituals inside the parliament. At midday, an imam led a prayer in the central lobby.
Ashura commemorates the killing of the Prophet Muhammed’s grandson, Imam Hussein. Iraqis typically march in the thousands to commemorate the day in the holy city of Karbala and emotions run high in the days leading up to it.
According to Shiite religious belief, one way of showing love toward Imam Hussein is to rise against oppression.
Al-Sadr's messaging to his followers is imbued with references to the pilgrimage, said Marsin Alshamary, a post–doctoral fellow at the Brookings Institution.
For the protesters, most of them young men, the sit-in offers a chance to come close to the seat of power in a system that has long neglected them. Before, they would not have been able to enter the heavily fortified zone without permission.
When Meethak Muhi took his turn to sit in the seat of the deputy speaker of parliament, he tied himself to the chair with a scarf.
“The parliament, it's finished," he shouted.