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Baghdad Security Deflects Anti-government Protest


FILE - A member of Iraqi security forces stands guard in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district, May 2, 2016. Fearing a repeat of last week's turmoil when protesters stormed into the fortified Green (International) Zone, Baghdad was on lockdown Friday.

FILE - A member of Iraqi security forces stands guard in Baghdad's Kadhimiya district, May 2, 2016. Fearing a repeat of last week's turmoil when protesters stormed into the fortified Green (International) Zone, Baghdad was on lockdown Friday.

Baghdad was on lockdown Friday.

Fearing a repeat of last week's turmoil, when protesters stormed into the fortified International Zone (IZ) and broke into parliament, forcing lawmakers to flee for their lives, the government set up concrete barriers around the city.

By late afternoon, however, the feared massive demonstration had not materialized.

The main Tigris River bridges have been sealed off with layers of concrete barriers, severing the routes from the planned demonstration site of Tahrir Square in the east to the IZ in the west.

Sadr City, also in the east and home to about 5 million supporters of firebrand Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has similarly been shut down.

Inside the IZ, also known as the Green Zone, foreign embassies were on lockdown and security was visibly increased.

Security was also high on the streets in the early afternoon Friday as people did their weekend shopping. Razor wire and concrete barriers blocked some streets, and blue police trucks with armed guards were parked in the side streets leading up the the square.

Unrest has been building in Baghdad for months, with people complaining of massive government corruption, political patronage and inefficiency.

Sadr has been leading the protests, demanding government reform and the establishment of a new Cabinet made up of technocrats. Abadi's attempts at reform failed when the political parties refused to give up their ministerial posts.

WATCH: Baghdad protesters

Short street protest

Some 100 men, some wearing Iraqi banners around their necks, gathered early, shouting and marching around the Tahrir Square waving Iraqi flags, but largely steered clear of the Iraqi forces standing behind razor wire at the entrance to the bridge.

Then suddenly the protesters melted away. Two military commanders and one of the protesters told VOA the main "million man" protest would take place on Saturday or next week.

One protester, who refused to be identified or have his picture taken, said they were waiting further instructions from Muqtada al Sadr.

Friday is typically a day of prayer and rest in Iraq.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, now all that is left of the Iraqi government, on Thursday fired the IZ security commander for allowing the protesters to pour into the fortified area last week, and appointed a new commander.

Within hours, a firefight broke out between Abadi's military guard and federal police – a paramilitary force loyal to the Ministry of Interior.

Fear of intra-Shi'ite violence

The clashes ended swiftly, but signaled the growing animosity between different Shi'ite militias in the country: those largely loyal to Sadr and those aligned with the interior minister and his powerful Iran-linked Badr Organization.

There is growing concern among diplomats and humanitarian organizations that in a country awash with militias and guns, the animosity could degenerate into armed clashes or full-out war.

Washington has voiced it support for Abadi, and repeatedly called for a unified government to confront what it considers the major threat in the country: Islamic State extremists.

U.N. Special Envoy to Iraq Jan Kubis has visited Iran and also sat down with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. Government leaders have been trying to negotiate a solution to the impasse.

As yet there has been no sign the government crisis will be resolved any time soon.

And while the political conflict plays out in Baghdad, Kurdish leaders, fed up with what they see as an irreparably broken political system, are saying the time has come to break away from Iraq.

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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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