Baghdad — Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced their withdrawal from Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone on Sunday, packing up and leaving just a day after they stormed parliament and began a sit-in.
Addressing the demonstrators, Akhlas al-Obaidi, a protest organizer, urged people to go home to give political decision-making a chance and to commemorate the death of 8th-century Imam Mousa al-Kadhim. She said they would return Friday to make a “major stand.”
Earlier in the day, the demonstrators had picnicked and chanted against politicians they deemed corrupt, while also enjoying what was for some their first sight of Baghdad’s most iconic landmarks. The Green Zone is home to parliament, ministries and embassies and has been sealed off by blast walls and checkpoints for 13 years.
Not far away, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi held a meeting with the president, the parliamentary speaker and other political leaders to try to steer the country out of political turmoil, which is threatening to unseat him. A statement released after their meeting said they planned “intense” meetings between political parties in the coming days to work on reforms. It also condemned the ransacking of parliament and ordered that the perpetrators be brought to justice.
The withdrawal of the protesters gives Abadi some breathing room, but he has struggled to implement any meaningful political changes despite months of trying. Sadr is demanding an end to a quota system, set up after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, under which political positions are divided up based on sect and ethnicity. Abadi has tried to put in place a technocratic government, but his attempts to reshuffle his Cabinet have been hampered by bickering in a split parliament.
Patience ran out Saturday as Sadr’s followers entered the parliament building. The cleric, who led an armed opposition against U.S. troops during the Iraq War, has a strong following on the street and described the events as the beginning of a “revolution.”
“History will record the birth of a new Iraq from the ashes of corruption and the corrupt,” he said.
Security forces declared a state of emergency in the Iraqi capital on Saturday after the demonstrators climbed over blast walls and broke through security cordons to enter the fortified Green Zone.
Lawmakers fled the parliament building in panic, with some berated and struck by protesters as they left. Others were trapped in the basement for hours, too afraid to face the crowds.
Obaidi said that if demands for a technocratic government are not fulfilled, then protesters will demand the sacking of the prime minister, the president and the speaker.
If not, they will demand early elections, she said, adding that if all else fails, they would storm the headquarters of political leaders.
At the parade ground where demonstrators had gathered earlier in the day next to the Hands of Victory monument, an arch of crossed swords that commemorates the Iran-Iraq War, Sadr’s supporters said they had expected a longer sit-in.
Some were arriving with supplies, pillows and blankets on Sunday afternoon. “We have everything we need. We’ll be there for as long as it takes,” said Ahmed Majid, 25, carrying shopping bags and a blanket over his shoulders.
The chaos has cast doubt over Abadi’s ability to steer Iraq out of its political crisis, which has been simmering since street protests against corruption and government waste began last summer.
Abadi’s office released pictures of his tour of the ransacked parliament building on Saturday night, surveying smashed windows and overturned furniture.
“No one can arrest any one of us or touch any one of us because if they do that, it will escalate and turn against them,” said Maher al-Khafaji, 25, a protester in the Green Zone. “Muqtada al-Sadr ordered a peaceful demonstration, but if they attack us, we will defend ourselves.”
U.S. officials are concerned that the turmoil may affect Iraq’s fight against Islamic State militants. The country is also suffering from a budget crisis because of plummeting oil prices.
On Sunday, the U.N. mission in the country said 741 Iraqis were killed in April, including more than 400 civilians. Baghdad and surrounding areas were the worst affected, the United Nations said, with more than 230 people killed last month.