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Supporters of Iraqi Cleric Camp Near Baghdad Parliament

  • VOA News

Followers of Iraq's Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hold a sit-in at Grand Festivities Square in Baghdad, in Iraq, April 30, 2016.

Followers of Iraq's Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hold a sit-in at Grand Festivities Square in Baghdad, in Iraq, April 30, 2016.

Hundreds of followers of Iraq's mercurial Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr set up camp overnight near Baghdad's parliament, hours after breaking into the government-controlled Green Zone and storming the building.

"We assure our people that the situation in Baghdad is under the control of the security forces, and I call on the demonstrators to withdraw and protest peacefully, and not to encroach upon the public and private properties, which are the property of all Iraqis," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement Saturday.

As night fell, the demonstrators set up tents inside the Green Zone, which houses government ministries, the parliament and foreign embassies, including the U.S. Embassy.

U.N. and Western diplomats said their compounds remained on lockdown later Saturday.

Sh'iite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks during a media conference in Najaf, Iraq,160 kilometers south of Baghdad, April 30, 2016. Hundreds of Sadr's supporters protesting against the government, stormed into the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad Satur

Sh'iite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks during a media conference in Najaf, Iraq,160 kilometers south of Baghdad, April 30, 2016. Hundreds of Sadr's supporters protesting against the government, stormed into the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad Satur

​Arab media reported that the U.N. and several foreign embassies were evacuating personnel, but VOA could not independently confirm the reports.

The Washington Post reported that members of parliament, many of whom live in the Green Zone, went into hiding, and some left the country.

The U.S. Embassy denied reports Saturday of an evacuation or that it was sheltering Iraqi officials.

Shwan Dawoodi, a Kurdish lawmaker, told the Post they were “scared for their lives. ... What’s happening in the streets is terrifying,” he told the newspaper by phone. He said he was attacked as he left parliament.

Demonstrating for months

Supporters of Sadr had been demonstrating outside the Green Zone for months, responding to their leader's call to put pressure on Abadi to follow through on months-old reform promises, including replacing politically appointed ministers with nonpartisan technocrats.

Sadr had warned in a televised speech earlier in the day that a popular uprising or revolution would take place to put an end to corruption in the government.

WATCH: Related video of demonstrators

But the storming of parliament occurred after a session of parliament had failed to reach a quorum to vote on a Cabinet reshuffle proposed by Abadi. Some ministers were approved earlier in the week despite disruptions by dissenting lawmakers.

Iraqi security forces fired tear gas at one entrance of the zone but appeared to be largely standing down as protesters marched through the area.

Shortly after protesters broke into the Green Zone, Iraqi security forces "declared a state of emergency in Baghdad," Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Saad Mann said.

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raise the Iraqi flag outside parliament in Baghdad's Green Zone, April 30, 2016.

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr raise the Iraqi flag outside parliament in Baghdad's Green Zone, April 30, 2016.

On Saturday, Iraq President Fuad Masoum urged the protesters to be calm and law-abiding. He called on the protestors "not to harm the lawmakers and employees, not to touch the public and private properties, and to evacuate the (parliament) building."

Masum also called for an emergency meeting of political leaders Sunday.

He urged "the prime minister, speaker and leaders of parliament blocs to come up with the desired reshuffle and implement the reforms to fight the corruption."

Unprecedented breach

The occupation of the parliament was an unprecedented security breach, although the Green Zone has often come under mortar attacks at various times in the years since U.S. forces ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The capital was already on high alert Saturday because of the planned Shi'ite pilgrimage to Kadumiya early next week.

A handout image released by the press office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on May 1, 2016, shows him (L) looking at the damage after protesters stormed the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone area.

A handout image released by the press office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on May 1, 2016, shows him (L) looking at the damage after protesters stormed the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone area.

​Also Saturday, a suicide bomber driving a car near a group of Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims outside of Baghdad exploded in an attack that killed at least 17 people and wounded nearly 40 more, police said.

Police officials at the scene said the bomb attack targeted the pilgrims walking into Baghdad’s holy Kadhimiyah shrine, but other officials said the bomber was targeting a nearby open-air market. It was not immediately clear which of the two accounts was accurate.

No one immediately took credit for the bombing, but Islamic State has claimed responsibility for similar attacks in that past that have targeted Shi’ite pilgrims near Baghdad.

Several days ago, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met top Iraqi leaders during a visit to Baghdad to discuss the political situation and military operations inside the country to defeat Islamic State militants.

VOA's Edward Yeranian contributed to this report from Cairo. Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.

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