He’s Baaaaack

How Moqtada al-Sadr Could Take Down Iraq’s Government

Supporters of the powerful Shia cleric stormed Baghdad’s parliament, leaving legislators quivering in the basement and Iraq on the edge of political chaos.

Khalid Al Mousily/Reuters

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Hussain Jassim refused to leave the Green Zone, once considered the impenetrable citadel at the heart of Baghdad, until his leader Muqtada al-Sadr ordered him to do so. “We have entered parliament and we have broken it’s prestige in front of people because they are thieves, they deserve for that to happen to them,” Jassim told The Daily Beast.

He was one of thousands of angry protestors who on Saturday raided the Iraqi legislature, chasing MPs out of their own seats in government, and often assaulting or denouncing those not aligned with al-Sadr trying to run away from the melee. “We saw them fleeing from us,” Jassim said.

Some legislators stayed behind, trapped in the basement of the parliament for fear of not wanting to confront the angry crowd outside. There were even false reports that a few had repaired to the sprawling U.S. embassy complex, seeking refuge from their own countrymen.

Remarkably, Iraq’s security forces tolerated the demonstrators day-long occupation of a notorious no-go area in the capital. The protesters climbed over concrete blast walls and burst through cordons with ease. Some tear gas was used, but law enforcement mingled comfortably with those against whom they were meant to guard. “The security forces have dealt with us with a high sense of patriotism and responsibility,” Jassim said.

These protests were a long time going. Iraq’s public coffers are a sieve, where billions have vanished in the salaries of “ghost soldiers” or into the bank accounts of well-connected pols and their kin. Problematic enough in peacetime and during high global oil prices, economic crisis is 2016 has become a national security crisis, as state bankruptcy could easily damage or end the ongoing war against the Islamic State.

For months, al-Sadr, the firebrand Shia cleric al-Sadr threatened to take direct action if Iraq’s parlous political establishment could not rid itself of cancerous corruption. Once a deadly foe of U.S. soldiers, al-Sadr has become, five years after America’s somewhat abortive military withdrawal, Iraq’s new political kingmaker, unafraid to antagonize a Shia-led government whose premier was appointed with the backing of both Washington and Tehran.

Among the Sadrists’ demands are early elections, genuine anti-corruption reforms (this, in a country where even anti-graft officials openly admit to being on the take), and an end to the political quota system, whereby government posts are decided according to sect and ethnicity—a holdover of America’s transitional stewardship of post-Saddam Iraq and once thought of as a sufficient underwriter of pluralism.

Many on Saturday behaved as if another despised tyranny were coming to an end. In one iconic photograph taken by Jean-Marc Mojon of Agence France-Presse, a young Iraqi boy is shown diving into a pool inside the Green Zone, his plunge pose mimicking the famous fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003, which symbolized the collapse of his Baathist regime.

Majid Gharawi, an MP from the Ahrar parliamentary list—Sadr’s bloc—justified the protests as a normal and healthy reaction to legislative deadlock after three attempts of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to form a technocratic cabinet were rebuffed by a parliament which internally devolved into the kind of chaos that descended upon the institution from without this weekend, with MPs getting into fist fights and waging their own sit-ins over the past several weeks.

Haider al-Mullah, a member of the Sunni Alliance of United Forces, called on al-Abadi to resign. The prime minister, al-Mullah told The Daily Beast, “moved the crisis from government and his coalition to parliament.”

In a press release the Kurdish Alliance condemned the ransacking of “the parliament building, which represents the nation and the assault on the second deputy speaker of parliament Aram Shekh Muhammed and some other Kurdish members of parliament and MPs from other blocs.” According to Hiwa Afandi, the Head of Department of Information Technology of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, all Kurdish MPs were ordered to remove themselves from Baghdad.

A state of emergency was declared Saturday, as Shia militias under the command of Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri were mobilized to ensure that the Islamic State didn’t take advantage advantage of the unrest—or, better say, further advantage of it.

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On Sunday, the Islamic State detonated two car bombs in Samawah, a city about 120 miles south of Baghdad, killing at least 32. Samawah, which is majority Shia, had mostly been immune to the depredations of the army of terror which two years ago stormed into the northern provincial capital of Ninewah and conquered about a third of Iraq’s territory.

In recent months, the so-called caliphate has seen a series of major tactical defeats in Iraq and Syria and the loss of swaths of held terrain. As a result, it has amplified opportunistic acts of terrorism. The question, however, is whether crippling dysfunction in Baghdad can prevent or withstand these from tearing the country apart. An earlier Islamic State bombing on Saturday, this one of Shite pilgrims in the Nahrawan district close to Baghdad, killed two dozen.

The occupation of the Green Zone may have been lifted, as of Sunday evening, but the stability and cohesion of the state are still very much in doubt. One of the protest organizers, Akhlas al-Obaidi, has given the government less than a week to broker a solution; otherwise, she said, the protestors would return on Friday.

“The Iraqi politicians have tried many times procrastinating people’s demands which are calling for reform,” Mudahir al-Lamy, another protestor, told The Daily Beast. “Yesterday, we sent a clear message to them that they have no place in the new Iraq. They have stolen our money, so today we ask them to be held accountable and put them in prison.”

with reporting by Abdulla Hawez from Baghdad and Michael Weiss from New York.

Abdulla Hawez is a reporter for Yalla, an Erbil-based Iraqi news organization.