Iraq Braces for Protests in the Capital

3 MINS READMar 18, 2016 | 00:11 GMT
Iraq Braces for Protests in the Capital
Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, shown here during a February demonstration in Baghdad's Tahrir Square, has set up an 11-day sit-in, citing the need for government reform.

Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr has organized a sit-in that will take place March 18 near Baghdad's Green Zone. The objective of the protest, like many before it, is to end government corruption and replace members of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's Cabinet with technocrat ministers. Widely viewed as a symbol of resistance to Western intervention in Iraq, al-Sadr has significant influence over Shiite public opinion. Because al-Sadr's political coalition lacks the parliamentary votes to disapprove new Cabinet members, he has turned to protest to gain leverage with the government. Previously, al-Sadr had given the government 45 days to implement various reforms. 

During the 11 days of planned protest — set to end on the day of the reform deadline — 15,000-20,000 registered protesters will take turns occupying tents near the Green Zone's three gates. During a phone conversation with the Iraqi president, al-Sadr stressed that the sit-in is a tool to pressure the government, and both sides emphasized the need to maintain order during the protest.

For over a year, protests calling for government reform have been a regular feature in Iraqi politics. But recently, al-Sadr has joined the protest scene, bringing with him supporters of his affiliated Badr Organization and al-Ahrar bloc. For a time, al-Abadi's government sought to push through reforms, enjoying the support of Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But about a month ago, disillusioned by the political infighting pervading the reform movements, al-Sistani announced that he would no longer get involved in political matters. Without the religious leader's support, al-Abadi's government has lost its moral weight. 

The government has declared tomorrow's sit-in illegal, even though recent and regular Friday demonstrations across the country have been allowed. In anticipation of the demonstration, unusually large numbers of troops have been deployed to the Green Zone, including riot police and snipers from Iraqi security forces. The prime minister's coalition announced that it has ordered the troops to use immediate force if any laws are broken.

The chance for clashes between security forces and protesters is great, especially since the protest has already been declared illegal. Any violence between the sides — both Shiite — could lead to rifts within Iraq's Shiite community, which would further destabilize the country. Moreover, al-Sadr's protest will provoke more calls for the prime minister to step down. Al-Sadr has even proposed a possible candidate to replace the current leader. But al-Abadi was Iraq's consensus candidate, and the fall of his government would result in a bitter and possibly violent power struggle. On top of this, any prospective successor would need the support not only of the Iraqi people but also of Iran and the United States, which assist the country financially and militarily. 

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