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Pro-Sadr protesters vow to remain inside Iraq parliament

It is the second time in days that Sadr supporters have forced their way into Iraq's legislative chamber
— Baghdad (AFP)

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 Shiite 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 Shiite 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 against "a corrupt and incapable government" and would "sleep here" in the gardens of parliament.

Sadr supporters tear down a concrete barrier before breaching the Green Zone

He added: "The people totally refuse the parties that have governed the country for 18 years."

Sadr's bloc emerged from elections in October as the biggest parliamentary faction, but was still far short of a majority.

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.

Outside, protesters erected a large tent as they settled in, with volunteers delivering hot meals and bottled water.

Security forces looked on as one man lit a fire in the gardens to warm some tea, another sold cigarettes, and women and children trickled in to join Sadr's other supporters.

- 'The people are with you' -

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.

A man displays an Iraqi flag while supporters of the cleric Moqtada Sadr occupy the country's parliament

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.

Long a player in Iraqi politics, Sadr has a devoted following of millions among the country's majority Shiite population.

His supporters oppose the candidacy of Sudani, the pick for premier of the Coordination Framework, an alliance of pro-Iran Shiite factions.

Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr rest beside his picture after occupying parliament, where they vow to remain

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.

- 'Revolution' -

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".

It is the second parliamentary occupation in three days

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq said the "ongoing escalation" was deeply concerning.

Noting the protest injuries, a spokesperson for UN chief Antonio Guterres echoed that concern in a statement on Saturday, while calling on parties to "de-escalate the situation".

"The Secretary-General urges all parties and actors to rise above their differences and form, through peaceful and inclusive dialogue, an effective national government... without further delay," the statement said.

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.

Intense negotiations between factions over the past several months have failed to bridge the divide.

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.