Shiite cleric takes lead role in Iraq's protest movement

By SUSANNAH GEORGE - Associated Press 19 March 2016, 12:00AM

BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of supporters of an influential Iraqi Shiite cleric took to Baghdad streets on Friday following his demands for government reforms, pushing through security checkpoints and surging over a bridge on the Tigris River to set up a sit-in outside the Green Zone, the heavily secured government compound.

The demonstrations catapulted Muqtada al-Sadr to the forefront of what only six months ago was an impassioned — albeit mostly secular — movement demanding reforms, an end to corruption and greater accountability by officials in power.

Though al-Sadr was not out on the streets, living in the southern holy city of Najaf, the firebrand cleric appears to have successfully taken over the protest movement, sidelining secular reformists for increasingly sectarian politics.

"Yes, yes, our leader is al-Sadr," chanted the protesters outside the walls of the Green Zone where they set up camp. As night fell, Iraqi police did not move against the protesters or try to dismantle their encampment.

Earlier Friday, the protesters pushed through security lines, cut coils of barbed wire and surged over a bridge on the Tigris to reach the outer walls of the Green Zone, the fortified complex home to the country's political elite, foreign embassies and the government headquarters and which al-Sadr has labelled a "bastion of support for corruption."

Just over six months ago similarly large crowds of impassioned Iraqis were also calling for an end to corruption and greater accountability, but with very different language, appealing to the country's nationalistic sentiments rather than specific leaders.

Al-Sadr's protests are "co-opting and wrecking what remained of the genuine anti-corruption, pro-reform protest movement," said Kirk Sowell, publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter. The move, Sowell argues, is further fracturing a political system already paralyzed by sectarian strife.

Last summer, at the height of a largely spontaneous, secular protest movement, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proposed reforms that he pledged would address corruption and mismanagement. His proposal was quickly backed by Iraq's parliament and the country's influential Shiite clerics, handing the newly appointed Iraqi leader a powerful mandate.

But in the following months Iraqis witnessed few changes and al-Abadi's support began to crumble. On the Iraqi streets, the protests fizzled out.

Iraqi politicians and analysts blame al-Abadi's failure on the leader's own missteps, but also on the U.S.-imposed confessional system of government and party quotas that have dominated Iraqi politics post 2003 and encouraged sectarianism.

In February, al-Sadr demanded Iraqi politicians be replaced with more technocrats and that the country's powerful Shiite militias be incorporated into the ministries of defense and interior. The following weeks he called on his supporters to begin to take to the streets, and each Friday their numbers grew.

While Iraq's political leadership has proposed multiple reform plans — some echoing al-Sadr's own demands — progress in parliament has been slowed by a weak central government and increasingly sectarian politics.

Along with the war against the Islamic State, which in the summer of 2014 swept across the country and captured a third of Iraq, the government is also battling a crippling economic crisis.

Near-record-low oil prices have more than halved government revenue and Iraqi officials predict a budget deficit of more than $30 billion this year. Many Iraqis blame their politicians for squandering the country's fortunes when oil prices were high rather than investing in the country's now crumbling infrastructure.

"Today we cut the barbed wire, we opened the bridge and achieved victory," said Fadil Hussein, 18, one of the protesters who crossed the Tigris. He waved an Iraqi flag as helicopters buzzed overhead.

Al-Sadr had refused to cancel Friday's demonstration, despite a statement from the Interior Ministry on Thursday that such a gathering was "unauthorized."

After protesters cut the barbed wire and pushed aside barriers to cross previously closed bridges and roads, al-Abadi ordered Baghdad's joint operations command to impose security in the city. Despite the large crowds and heavy security force presence, no clashes were reported.

A small group of protesters remained outside the Green Zone walls into the night.

"We expected so much more" last summer, said Ali Al-Sumery, one of the original organizers of Baghdad's demonstrations in 2015. He said he had kept turning up at Friday rallies even as the number of demonstrators slumped to under a hundred some weeks.

Now, as thousands turned out to support al-Sadr, al-Sumery says al-Abadi is to blame.

"He did not listen, he should have stood with all Iraqis, not only with his party," al-Sumery added.

By SUSANNAH GEORGE - Associated Press 19 March 2016, 12:00AM

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