Middle East

Iraq's Moqtada Sadr returns to spotlight in political crisis

Supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr storm Baghdad's Green Zone (30 April 2016) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Hundreds of protesters stormed Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on Saturday

When thousands of Iraqis stormed the seat of power, known as the Green Zone, in Baghdad last Saturday it was a moment of powerful symbolism.

The dramatic images of angry, determined protesters using ropes to pull down concrete walls surrounding the parliament building's main gate were redolent of those of Iraqis dragging down the statue of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 after the US-led invasion-turned-occupation.

In 2016, the protesters were shouting the mantra "we will topple all of the politicians".

"From now on, no government, no parliament. We are the government," cried a young man who stormed the main hall of the parliament building.

The irony of the situation was not lost on the protesters.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The protesters occupied the parliament building and "approved" a long-delayed cabinet reshuffle

Hundreds of them decided to hold their own "parliamentary session" and "approved" the long-awaited new cabinet of non-partisan technocratic ministers.

In so-doing, they were mocking the successive failure of MPs to reach the quorum needed to debate and approve the cabinet reshuffle.

But the message they wanted to send by storming the Green Zone was that they had finally broken the high walls that separate the masses from the ruling elite.

'Red Zone'

The heavily-fortified complex at the very heart of Baghdad is home to the cabinet, the ministry of defence, the Supreme Judicial Council and the parliament, as well as United Nations offices and foreign embassies.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The Green Zone features two crossed swords held by fists modelled after Saddam Hussein's

Powerful, prominent politicians also live inside the sprawling compound.

Many Iraqis, especially those born after 2003, have never seen inside the Green Zone. Some protesters were so excited to get inside that they paused to take selfies with their phones.

"The politicians are isolating themselves in a Green Zone, while we live in a 'Red Zone'," said Hassan, who had been camping out in Tahrir Square for four weeks as part of an anti-government sit-in before Saturday's protest.

Hassan was alluding to the bloody bombings targeting civilians and security personnel that occur on an almost daily basis elsewhere in Baghdad.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A day after storming the Green Zone, the protesters heeded a call for them to leave

Since last summer, the capital and eight southern cities have seen demonstrations against perceived endemic corruption and the lack of basic public services in an oil-rich country.

The protesters say that over the past 13 years they have not felt any sense of improvement in their living conditions, despite the billions of dollars spent on rebuilding Iraq.

'Unifying figure'

The anti-government "uprising" was leaderless for several months and the protests were mainly driven by social media and leftist and socialist activists.

That was until the influential Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr emerged in February and delivered a fiery speech to the protesters in Tahrir Square.

"The people are at the doorsteps of the Green Zone, and their patience is wearing thin," he warned.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Moqtada Sadr wants the government to tackle corruption and end sectarian quotas

He ordered the protesters into the parliament building, and also told them to leave on Sunday. Strikingly, they heeded his calls immediately.

"If he tells me to kill myself, I would do it for him," one protester told me. "To us, he is a father, a spiritual leader, a unifying figure of both Shia and Sunnis."

Moqtada Sadr is popular among Iraqis, irrespective of their sect.

His popularity is largely based on the legacy of his family. He is the youngest son of the revered Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999.

"Sayyed Moqtada is practicing what he is preaching," said Ibrahim al-Jabri, Moqtada Sadr's representative in Baghdad.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called for those who vandalised parliament to be arrested

"He led several joint prayers for Shia and Sunnis to nip any sedition in the bud, disbanded the Mahdi Army [militia] after sectarian bloodletting nine years ago to distance himself from other Shia militias, and he ordered his political bloc in parliament to boycott parliamentary sessions unless they [the MPs] stuck to their promise of a new cabinet of independent ministers," Mr Jabri added.

But in the eyes of leading Shia politicians, he is a divisive figure who is threatening Shia unity.

They are particularly critical of what they describe as his bellicose style.

"No-one and no party has the right to impose their point of view on the people," said Walid al-Hili, of the Dawa party.

"This is against democracy. You can express your opinion, but change should come through the parliament not through threats and intimidation of the MPs."

But even his opponents acknowledge, Moqtada Sadr has carved out a key role in Iraq's current chaotic politics. This time, he could end up kingmaker.

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