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Iraq's Sadr enters Green Zone to escalate anti-corruption protest

Muqtada al-Sadr tells supporters not to follow him, as deadline looms for his demand to tackle corruption and install new government

BAGHDAD - A political row inside Baghdad's Green Zone threatened to boil over on Monday after MPs gave Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi until Thursday to present a new cabinet for approval.

Abadi has been trying to push through a technocratic cabinet for months, but has faced stiff opposition from parliamentary blocs and MPs keen to see politicians loyal to Iraq's various political groupings secure the top job.

Monday's proposal is a last-ditch attempt to reach a compromise, and will see the various political blocs produce a shortlist for each ministerial post, including technocrats and politicians. Abadi will then have to make the final cut and present the line-up to parliament for approval. In a major nod to Abadi, all junior ministers will be technocrats. 

But many remain skeptical that the Thursday list can appease Iraq's powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who reportedly met the prime minister hours after starting a sit-in protest inside the fortified Green Zone, which houses the parliament and many foreign embassies.

Details of their discussion were not released but Sadr has vowed to continue the sit-in until politicians tackle corruption and create a new unaffiliated "technocratic" government. He had originally given Abadi until Tuesday to meet these demands but has agreed to hold off until the final list is released on Thursday. 

Sadr's symbolic move against the centre of government came late on Sunday as thousands of followers continued their own week-long sit-in protest just outside the zone.

Sadr earlier insisted that his supporters outside the Green Zone should not follow his example by entering through the heavily-guarded gates. 

Just before walking in, Sadr told his supporters: "I am the representative of the people. I am your representative, my beloved protesters. I will get into the Green Zone. I will sit inside, and you will keep sitting in at its gates.

"No one moves. Everyone stays in his tent, at his place or do not consider yourselves Sadrists."

Footage broadcast by private Iraqi TV channels showed Sadr surrounded by about 30 of his Sadrist Movement party leaders and bodyguards as he peacefully entered the area through a security checkpoint. Dozens of Iraqi soldiers greeted him, while others guarded his group.

One senior officer took the hand of Sadr and attempted to kiss it.

Sadr's guards settled in a tent just metres from the entrance to parliament and cabinet buildings, and about 500 metres from the British Embassy, sources from inside the zone told MEE.

Pictures released later by the cleric's media office showed Sadr wearing white robes and sitting on a camp bed, smiling and holding prayer beads. He has since remained camped out in the centre of the city, and is not expected to move over the coming days. 

Fears of a Sadrist coup

Sadr entered the compound two days before his deadline for the formation of a new government of suggested technocrats was to pass. 

His stunt also appears to be in response to a new parliament resolution agreed on Sunday that appeared to sink hope of reforms, stating that all changes must gain the backing of all the parliamentary blocs.

Early last week, the cleric sent Abadi a list of 90 names of Iraqi professors, experts and economists whom he described as "independent and professional volunteers" who would "serve Iraq for free" in the new administration.

Sadr's step was seen by his Shia rivals and partners as a coup against Iraq's power-sharing system, and increased fears of fighting between Sadrists and Iraqi security forces.

However, Ibrahim al-Jabiri, one of Sadr's entourage inside the zone, told MEE by phone: "This is not an escalation. It’s a peaceful step to prevent the shedding of Iraqi blood.

"Sadr entered quietly and peacefully, and there is full cooperation between us and our brothers from the security services. This is a message of reassurance to the Iraqi people ... the sit-in will remain peaceful." 

Sadrist political leaders told MEE that Sadr was not targeting Abadi specifically. Rather, his moves should be seen as a protest against the government as a whole and an attempt to push through a technocratic cabinet. 

"Sadr is just looking to put more pressure on Abadi and the political blocs. Their new [resolution on Sunday] was deeply disappointing," Amir al-Kinani, a senior Sadrist leader, told MEE.

Kinani said the new resolution would allow Abadi to make even a partial cabinet re-shuffle "conditional to the approval and nomination of all political blocs".

"All the political blocs except Sadrists agreed on this resolution," Kinani said.

But the Shia parliamentary bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, has since agreed to form a new committee to "help Abadi in his consultations with the parliamentary blocs ... to smoothly pass the cabinet re-shuffle [and resubmit the list for Abadi's approval]," Abbas al-Biyati, the representative of the State of Law bloc, said after the meeting. MPs have since said that they will give Abadi until Thursday to present a new line-up. 

Iraq has witnessed weekly demonstrations since August over financial and administrative corruption in government.

Abadi has promised to reform Iraq's 2003 power-sharing system since taking over from the widely unpopular Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister in September 2014.

Since taking office, the prime minister has cut spending to offset the economic crisis caused by the sharp decline of the global oil prices and the long-term war against the Islamic State group - but his plans have faced opposition from politicians.

Kurdish parliamentary blocs in Baghdad said they would not accept nominations of non-Kurdish ministers in positions that affect the Kurdish share, and that Abadi had to keep the 20 percent quota of Kurds in the federal government.

"The Kurdish blocs reject the nomination of any figure who is not affiliated to the Kurdish blocs," Alaa al-Talabani, the head of the Kurdish parliamentary bloc in Baghdad, said on Sunday.

Sunni parliamentary blocs meanwhile said on Sunday that "the replacement of ministers has to be in consultation with political blocs, and it has to guarantee the leadership of the Sunni blocs to nominate who they believe is fit to measures requested by the prime minister".

Under the political agreement adopted after the ousting of former president Saddam Hussein by the US-led coalition in 2003, the president must be a Kurd, the prime minister a Shia and the parliamentary speaker a Sunni. 

Abdulwahid Tuama, an independent political analyst, told MEE that the new developments could prove beneficial to Abadi.

"Whether he is aware or not, Sadr is a lifeline for Abadi. He redirects the conflict, and rather than [making the conflict] between Abadi and the political blocs, he makes it between him and these blocs," Tuama said.

"Sadr's sit-in inside the Green Zone is a warning message to the political blocs. He wants to tell them that he is serious in his threat and he got in, his followers would get in, if needed."

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