Baghdad, Iraq - When Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr armed young followers with rocket-propelled grenades to fight US and Iraqi forces, few would have predicted he would re-emerge inside Baghdad's Green Zone as a champion for better government.

Sadr, 42, who is rarely seen outside of Najaf, appeared in person on Sunday outside the barricaded entrance of the sprawling neighbourhood taken over by the Iraqi government.

It didn't matter that his short speech ordering followers to stay behind lacked the oratory of his revered father and father-in-law. Grown men wept at seeing him in the flesh.

And then, for the first time ever, the cleric who led the fight against US troops and Iraqi government forces from 2004 to 2008 walked inside the Green Zone that his followers view as the symbol of corrupt government and foreign occupation.

 Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr appeals to frustrated Iraqis

Sadr has vowed to sit inside the pop-up tent set up near the entrance until Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replaces cabinet ministers and investigates corruption.

On the other side of the concrete walls and razor wire, thousands of followers are holding their own sit-in amid the implicit threat that Sadr could still follow through and have them storm the Green Zone.

Although seen by some as a threat to topple Abadi's government, it is not.

Sadr, first a backer and then a sworn enemy of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, has made clear he supports the current prime minister.

His goal is much more ambitious.

"The whole system needs to be tackled - changing the ministers is not going to tackle what facilitates corruption," says Diha al-Assadi, the urbane, UK-educated head of the Sadrist Ahrar bloc. "We need to think about changing the system and the entire architecture and hierarchy of the ministries."

The Sadrists and many others want to change a quota system in place since the first postwar Iraqi government that sets aside specific positions for Shia, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs. The stranglehold of political parties on cabinet has also prevented senior politicians from being prosecuted, says Assadi.

Prime Minister Abadi, seen as a well-intentioned but relatively weak leader, has made clear from the day he took office two years ago that he didn't choose the ministers in his cabinet. Since then it has become evident that he would dearly like to replace some of them.

Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Higher Education Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, both senior members in their own Shia political parties, are expected to be particularly difficult to dislodge.

"Al-Abadi would like to get rid of a few of the ministers who act as if they are the prime minister, rather than him," says one high-ranking Iraqi official.


READ MORE: Iraq cleric starts Green Zone sit-in


Parliament has now given Abadi a deadline of Thursday to present what are expected to be up to nine replacement ministers in the 22-person cabinet.

While Sadr has no formal role in politics and only mid-level religious credentials, he has had perhaps the most impact of any single Iraqi in post-war Iraq.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - the revered and hugely influential Najaf-based cleric - was born in Iran and intervenes in non-religious matters only in times of crisis.

Sadr's persona - from the fiery cleric urging young followers to drive out American troops, to his current role leading what Sadrists hope will become a multi-sectarian reform movement - has always been that of an Iraqi nationalist.

"He has always had the ability to get out in front of the parade," says Feisal Istrabadi, former Iraqi ambassador to the UN, now at Indiana University.

In this latest protest, Sadr has ordered followers to display only the Iraqi flag and chant loyalty only to the nation. For years he has reached out to disaffected Sunnis and to minorities, saying the Sadr movement will protect them.

The Iraqi government has gone to huge lengths to secure the Green Zone, home to the US and other embassies as well as parliament, the prime ministry and other government offices.

Originally an area surrounding Saddam Hussein's main palace and off-limits to ordinary Iraqis, the Green Zone was expanded after US forces and then civilian officials settled into the palace, and then further expanded by the Iraqi government.

Prime Minister Abadi has removed road blocks to major roads running through the Green Zone but only Iraqis who live or work inside are allowed to enter the area, and most Iraqis have never seen it.

With the presence of thousands of protesters at the entrance - and Sadr's threat to storm the gates - the government has diverted Iraqi troops from the battlefield in the fight against ISIL to protect the Green Zone, according to military officials.

The effusive welcome by uniformed Iraqi army officers who ushered Sadr into the Green Zone on Sunday, though, has cast doubt on whether largely Shia security forces would try to stop protesters.

Sadr officials say if they were told by Sadr to enter, their instructions are to simply gather for a peaceful protest.

"They are asked not to do any harm to anything in the Green Zone," says Assadi.

He says if the political reforms are not implemented, the next step will most likely be a call for nationwide strikes by civil servants.

"It won't be helpful because the whole country would be paralysed, but we are going to be left with no choices," Assadi says. 

 Inside Story - The return of Muqtada al-Sadr?

Source: Al Jazeera