Tue | Sep 19, 2017

Iraqi cleric starts sit-in in Baghdad's Green Zone

Published:Monday | March 28, 2016 | 3:00 AM

BAGHDAD (AP):

Security forces stepped aside to allow influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to start his sit-in in Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone on Sunday, after weeks of protests in the Iraqi capital.

"I am a representative of the people and will enter the (Green Zone)," al-Sadr told hundreds of his supporters who had gathered outside the compound's walls, asking his followers to stay outside and remain peaceful.

As al-Sadr walked through a checkpoint to enter the Green Zone, officials in charge of the compound's security greeted the cleric with kisses and provided him with a chair. Al-Sadr was accompanied by his personal security detail and the leader of his Shiite militia, Sarayat al-Salam. After he began his sit-in, al-Sadr's supporters started erecting tents and laying down mattresses.

After weeks of growing protests in the Iraqi capital, al-Sadr repeatedly threatened to storm the compound if his demands for government overhaul were not met. Baghdad's Green Zone, encircled by blast walls and razor wire, is closed to most Iraqis and houses the country's political elite as well as most of the city's foreign embassies. Al-Sadr has called it a "bastion" of corruption.

Al-Sadr's protests and the Green Zone sit-in are intended as a show of power by the influential cleric as Iraq's government attempts to implement reform to tackle corruption.

Most Iraqis blame the country's politicians for the graft and mismanagement that are draining Iraq's already scarce resources. Unlike the widespread, largely civic protests last summer, however, al-Sadr's demonstrations are attended almost exclusively by his supporters, who have made few concrete policy demands.

Earlier this month, Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints in Baghdad again stepped aside to allow al-Sadr's supporters to march up to the Green Zone's outer walls to begin a sit-in, despite a government order deeming the gathering "unauthorised". The move called into question Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's ability to control security in the capital.

"I thank the security forces," al-Sadr said before beginning his sit-in. "He who attacks them, attacks me," he added.