Anti-government protests in Baghdad exploded into violence Friday afternoon as thousands of demonstrators defied heavily armed guards and concrete barriers and charged into the International Zone.
Security forces unloaded heavy machine-gun fire, stun grenades and tear gas as the crowds surged forward. But even as some protesters were forced back, others began to arrive, charging their way toward the fight.
“We will kill Abadi!” some shouted as they ran toward the zone. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has come to symbolize the face of Iraq’s failing government.
Some of the protesters broke the security cordon and ran to Abadi’s offices, determined to find him. He reportedly was not there.
Baghdad protests turn violent as supporters of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr vow to kill Iraq's prime minister, May 20, 2016. (S. Behn/VOA)
As the gunfire continued, dozens of ambulances with sirens blaring raced across the bridge connecting eastern Baghdad toward the entrance of the International Zone to pick up the wounded. It was not clear whether the gunfire was being directed at the protesters or above their heads, or how many wounded there were.
The protests were the culmination of weeks of mounting anger against government corruption and inefficiency, which peaked this week when a series of bombs and suicide bombers exploded in the largely poor Shi’ite area of Baghdad known as Sadr City.
By dusk, most of the gunfire had ended and smoke was blowing across the skyline of the International Zone, also called the Green Zone. But protesters vowed to return, with their own guns.
Many of the protesters were followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shi'ite cleric who has emerged as the leader of the Iraq’s struggling poor and has an almost cultlike following among those frustrated with a government and parliament seen as deeply corrupt and ineffective.
“I will do anything Muqtada asks me to do,” said Mahdi, a commander inside al-Sadr’s so called Peace Brigades.
His nephew Rabah, a policeman in Sadr City, agreed. “We are not afraid of anything because we are with Muqtada al-Sadr,” he said.
Supporters of Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr flee the tear gas fired by security forces during clashes after demonstrators broke into Baghdad's fortified "Green Zone," May 20, 2016.
“If the government does nothing for us, we will do something,” Rabah added just before the protests erupted. “We want the government to fix the situation inside the parliament and inside Iraq.”
Members of parliament have been struggling to even gather a quorum after al-Sadr and his followers shocked Baghdad three weeks ago by entering the International Zone, storming the parliament and chasing out the lawmakers.
The cleric has demanded that Abadi end a political quota system that guarantees political parties ministerial positions and replace the current government with technocrats.
Interim step fails
Abadi attempted an interim measure by replacing six ministers. It was not enough. The parliament and the political parties could not agree, and the resultant squabbling devolved into a fight for power. The issue has been referred to the Iraqi federal court.
Many protesters have lost all trust in the lawmakers and the government.
“The political fighting here is creating huge problems and is the result of political infighting for personal gain, not out of concern for Iraq,” said Nabil Nouraddin, a human rights activist. “Politicians are not protecting their people. They are just out for themselves.”
But al-Sadr’s militiamen are not the only ones in Baghdad’s streets.
A poster on a Baghdad street calls for volunteers to join the Hashd al-Shaabi militia, May 18, 2016. (S. Behn/VOA)
The Badr corps, one of the strongest militias in the umbrella group of Shi’ite armed militias known as Hashd al-Shaabi, has rejected al-Sadr’s attempts to force change and has flexed its muscle in response.
Badr corps members now protect their own neighborhoods and reject al-Sadr's push.
“We need to follow the political process, the laws. Any emergency government or any government other than the current government, in our opinion, would be a disaster,” Hashd al-Shaabi spokesman and former Badr brigade leader Kareem Nouri told VOA.
Nouri also rejected the suggestion from some political corners — including from some Sunnis who feel they have lost all power under the Shi’ite-dominated political and security structure — for an emergency transitional government.
Some Iraq analysts see the political struggles as normal growing pains in a country new to democratic processes. But the presence of armed militias loyal to different leaders has turned that process into a tense and highly volatile situation.
Without the militias, “it would be more peaceful, more political and solved much easier, and everybody would be more ready to make concessions,” said Baghdad businessman Husam Gazalee.
The gunfire and surge of protesters raised concerns about the thousands of diplomats and international officials in the Green Zone.
Colonel Steve Warren, an American military spokesman based in Baghdad, said, "We're fine. Same as last time. They don't appear interested in us."
Warren, whose words were relayed to Pentagon reporters from the Baghdad embassy, referred to the large demonstration three weeks ago.
Another U.S. military official said there had been no change to the security posture at the embassy.
Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb and National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.
Poster calling for volunteers to join Al Hussein Athar militia, Baghdad, May 18, 2016. (S. Behn/VOA)