Iraq: Green Zone protests turn violent UN appeals for calm
By: Sharon Behn
Source: VOA News
BAGHDAD – Baghdad’s fortified International Zone was calm but tense Saturday following Friday’s violence by protesters who defied bullets and tear gas to storm the area.
The city woke to the early morning sound of helicopters, most of them heading in and out of the highly secured section where Iraq’s government buildings are located.
As demonstrators fled the gunfire and tear gas Friday afternoon, some carrying their injured friends away from the IZ, the anti-government protesters vowed they would return – but with weapons.
Many are followers of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who, like many of the political leaders in Iraq, has his own armed militia knows as the Peace Brigades.
Sadr has come out in support of what he describes as the people’s “revolution” against the government.
Security forces Saturday blocked all the entrances to the International Zone and increased the number of special forces checkpoints on city streets.
Inside the IZ, a line of some 40 Humvees was parked outside the parliament, and security forces were posted at key points.
Some Baghdad residents have started stocking up on food, water and medicine out of fear that the situation could get worse and protesters could start rioting and looting in the city.
One resident of Sadr city, a densely populated and impoverished pro-Sadr area of Baghdad, said the country did not need two wars.
“We already have a war against Islamic State and this is more important,” said Ali, speaking on condition his last name not be used.
“If we start a war against the government, we will have two wars, and this is not good for us. First we should resolve the fight against IS,” referring to the Islamic State militant group.
He warned that the bigger danger was an armed conflict between different Shi’ite militias: those loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, and the powerful pro-Iranian militias of the Badr Organization and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
The pro-Iranian factions that are loyal to key Shi’ite government leaders, have sent veiled warnings for Sadr to stand down.
But Sadr has emerged as one of Iraq’s most powerful nationalist and populist leaders, and has proved he can mobilize hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who are fed up with government corruption and the leadership’s inability to protect them from repeated rounds of violence.
Friday’s protest followed a series of bombings in Baghdad that left more than 100 dead and hundreds more wounded, mostly Shi’ites from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemned the protest, after the crowd broke into several government buildings, including the prime minister’s office.
“Storming into state institutions and tampering with public property cannot be accepted and tolerated,” he said.
But Abadi’s leadership is seen as weak. His previous denunciation of protesters who forced their way into the IZ three weeks ago to take over parliament have been clearly ignored.
The prime minister’s attempts to ease tensions by restructuring the government also have failed, and he has been unable to pull together the different political factions squabbling for power.
The U.N. Special Envoy to Iraq called for a de-escalation of the situation.
“Restoring calm is key for Iraq to be able to move forward in finding a political solution,” Jan Kubis said in a statement released Saturday.