BAGHDAD: Supporters of powerful Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr occupied the country's parliament on Saturday with no plan to leave, deepening a months-long political standoff.
It is the second time in days that supporters of the firebrand cleric have forced their way into the legislative chamber, after October elections failed to lead to the formation of a government.
"The demonstrators announce a sit-in until further notice," Sadr's movement said in a brief statement to journalists carried by state news agency INA.
In multi-confessional and multi-ethnic Iraq, government formation has involved complex negotiations since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Supporters of Sadr, who once led a militia against US and Iraqi government forces, oppose a rival, pro-Iran bloc's pick for prime minister — Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.
The post conventionally goes to a figure from Iraq's Shiite majority.
"We don't want Mr Sudani," said one protester, Sattar al-Aliawi, 47.
The civil servant said he was protesting "a corrupt and incapable government" and would "sleep here" in the gardens of parliament.
He added: "The people totally refuse the parties that have governed the country for 18 years."
The mercurial cleric is now using street protests to pile pressure on his political opponents.
Demonstrators inside the legislature waved Iraqi flags and pictures of the cleric.
They crowded the chamber where some sat at lawmakers' desks while others milled about, raising their mobile phones to film the occupation.
Parliament speaker Mohammed al-Halbussi said "all parliamentary meetings" had been suspended.
The crowds entered the chamber after thousands of protesters had massed at the end of a bridge leading to the heavily fortified Green Zone before dozens pulled down concrete barriers and ran inside, an AFP photographer reported.
Security forces had fired tear gas and water cannon near an entrance to the district, also home to foreign embassies and other government buildings.
Some protesters on the bridge were injured and carried off by their fellow demonstrators.
The health ministry said at least 100 protesters and 25 security personnel had been hurt.
"All the people are with you, Sayyed Moqtada," the protesters chanted, using his title as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).
Long a player in Iraqi politics, Sadr has a devoted following of millions among the population.
His supporters oppose the candidacy of Sudani, the pick for premier of the Coordination Framework, an alliance of pro-Iran factions.
The protests are the latest challenge for a country trying to overcome decades of war.
Despite oil wealth and elevated global crude prices, Iraq remains hobbled by corruption, unemployment and other problems which sparked a youth-led protest movement in 2019.
Saturday's demonstration came after crowds of Sadr supporters breached the Green Zone and entered the legislature on Wednesday. They left two hours later after Sadr told them to.
After the latest occupation began, the Coordination Framework called on "the popular masses... to peacefully demonstrate in defence of the state and its legitimacy".
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq said the "ongoing escalation" was deeply concerning.
"Voices of reason and wisdom are critical to prevent further violence," it said on Twitter.
Caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, in a televised address, called on political blocs "to sit down, negotiate and reach agreement".
Hadi al-Ameri, who heads a faction of the Hashed al-Shaabi — pro-Iran former paramilitaries now integrated into the regular armed forces — made a similar appeal.
He called on the Sadrists and the Coordination Framework, with which he is aligned, to "overcome differences".
Intense negotiations between factions over the past several months have failed to do so.
In June, Sadr's 73 lawmakers quit their seats in a move seen as an attempt to pressure his rivals into fast-tracking the formation of a government.
"The Sadrist movement has a problem with the idea that the Coordination Framework will form a government," Ammar al-Hakim, whose Hima movement is part of the group, said in a recent interview with BBC Arabic.
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