Supporters of a cleric enter the Iraqi Parliament for a show of force

BAGHDAD — Hundreds of Iraqi protesters violated Baghdad’s parliament on Wednesday by chanting anti-Iranian curses during a protest against a candidate for prime minister by Iran-backed parties.

The majority of the protesters were supporters of the influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The protesters, all men, were seen marching across tables in parliament, leafing through files, sitting in lawmakers’ chairs and waving Iraqi flags. The incident has raised the stakes in the political struggle for Iraq nearly 10 months after the federal election.

No legislator was present. Only security forces were inside the building and they seemed to let protesters in with relative ease.

The demonstrators were protesting the recent selection of Mohammed al-Sudani as the official candidate of the Coordination Framework bloc, a coalition led by Iran-backed Shiite parties and their allies.

It was the largest protest since federal elections were held in October, and the second time al-Sadr has used his ability to mobilize the masses to send a message to his political rivals this month. Earlier in July, thousands responded to his call for mass prayer, an event that many feared would turn into destabilizing protests.

Hours after his supporters occupied parliament, al-Sadr posted a statement on Twitter telling them their message had been received, and “to return safely to your homes”, signaling that there would be no more escalating to the sit-in. Shortly after, protesters began to emerge from the parliament building under the surveillance of security forces.

The incident, and al-Sadr’s subsequent display of control over his supporters, carried an implicit warning to the Framework alliance of potential escalation to come if the government forms with al-Sudani at the helm.

Al-Sadr’s ability to mobilize and control his broad supporters gives him powerful leverage over his rivals. Similarly, his supporters stormed the Green Zone in 2016 and entered the country’s parliament building to demand political reform.

Earlier in the day, protesters entered Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses parliament and other government buildings, as well as foreign embassies.

The demonstrators chanted curses against Iran and said, “Sudani, get out!

Riot police had tried to repel protesters with water cannons, but protesters scaled the cement barrier walls and pulled down flagstones using ropes to enter the Green Zone.

Protesters took the area’s main thoroughfare with little resistance from security forces. A security staff member was seen handing a bottle of water to a protester.

Acting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for calm and restraint, and for protesters to “withdraw immediately” from the area.

Al-Sadr recently withdrew from the political process despite winning the most seats in October’s federal election. The demonstrators carried portraits of the clergyman.

Al-Sudani was selected by rule of law leader and former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Before al-Sudani can face parliament to be officially named prime minister-designate, the parties must first choose a president. The demonstrators also chanted: “Maliki, trash!”

The Framework, in a statement, said it had heard of “calls calling for chaos, provoking conflict” in the past 24 hours since al-Sudani’s appointment.

The UN said Iraqis had the right to protest but it was “essential that protests remain peaceful and respect the law”, in a statement.

Al-Sadr walked out of government formation talks after he was unable to muster enough lawmakers to secure the majority required to elect Iraq’s next president.

By replacing his lawmakers, the Framework leader moved forward to form the next government. Many fear it will also open the doors to street protests organized by al-Sadr’s broad supporters and instability.

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