Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr starts Green Zone sit-in

After weeks of rallies by his followers, influential cleric launches protest to demand sweeping changes by government.

Influential Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi after starting a sit-in at Baghdad’s heavily protected Green Zone to pressure the government to introduce reforms.  

The meeting on Sunday night came after security forces stepped aside to allow al-Sadr to enter the zone after weeks of protests in the Iraqi capital.

Al Jazeera’s Jane Arraf on the significance of the sit-in

Baghdad, Iraq – This sit-in was seemingly a simple gesture, a few small steps into the Green Zone. But it carried huge political ramifications and it speaks volumes.

Al-Sadr formerly led a militia against American and Iraqi forces; he is now a mainstream political figure.

He has threatened that his followers will storm the Green Zone if his political demands aren’t met.

The reason this is significant is because al-Sadr very rarely leaves Najaf, the city where he lives.

This is one of the few cases where his followers have seen him up close. People were weeping as he spoke.

He went into the Green Zone and he was kissed and greeted by senior Iraqi security officials. He sat down on the sidewalk.

That again speaks volumes. He says he is a man of the people and he is speaking for all of Iraq.

This is a way to put pressure on the Iraqi government. He says he intends to stay there until the reforms are made.

The Iraqi government, Prime Minister al-Abadi, want the reforms. He is trying to reshuffle the cabinet but there is a lot of political resistance to this.

He now has on his doorstep, almost literally, one of his leading political rivals basically waiting for him to do something.

Baghdad’s Green Zone is encircled by blast walls and razor wire and is closed to most Iraqis.

It houses the country’s political elite as well as most of the city’s foreign embassies, including that of the United States. Al-Sadr has called it a bastion of corruption.

He has repeatedly called on al-Abadi to enact sweeping economic and political reforms.

“I am a representative of the people and will enter the [Green Zone],” al-Sadr told hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the compound’s walls, asking his followers to stay outside and remain peaceful.

As al-Sadr walked through a checkpoint to enter the Green Zone, officials in charge of its security greeted him with kisses and provided him with a chair.

Al-Sadr was accompanied by his personal security detail and the leader of his Shia militia, Sarayat al-Salam. After he began his sit-in, his supporters put up tents and lay down mattresses.

In February, al-Sadr demanded Iraqi politicians be replaced with more technocrats and that the country’s powerful Shia militias be incorporated into the defence and interior ministries.

After weeks of growing protests in the Iraqi capital, al-Sadr repeatedly threatened to storm the compound if his demands for government overhaul were not met.

Most Iraqis blame the country’s politicians for corruption and mismanagement that are draining Iraq’s already scarce resources.

Unlike the widespread, largely civic protests last summer, however, al-Sadr’s demonstrations are attended almost exclusively by his supporters, who have made few concrete policy demands.

Earlier this month, Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints in Baghdad again stepped aside to allow al-Sadr’s supporters to march up to the Green Zone’s outer walls to begin a sit-in, despite a government order deeming the gathering “unauthorised”.

READ MORE: The reinvention of Muqtada al-Sadr

The move called into question Prime Minister al-Abadi’s ability to control security in the capital.

“I thank the security forces,” al-Sadr said before beginning his sit-in. “He who attacks them, attacks me.” 

While al-Abadi proposed a reform package last August, few of his plans have been implemented as the leader has made several political mistakes and struggled with the country’s increasingly sectarian politics amid the ongoing fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.

Shias dominate the central government, while the country’s Kurds in the north exercise increasing autonomy and much of the Sunni population has either been displaced by violence or continues to live under ISIL rule.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies