Inside Iraq’s Parliament building were some wild scenes on Wednesday. Protesters breached the building, which sits inside Baghdad’s heavily militarized Green Zone. They are allied with Shia cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr, someone who gained renown during the American invasion of Iraq.
Sadr’s movement is in a deadlock with political rivals for control of Iraq’s government.
Hamzeh Hadad, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, joined us from Baghdad, to break down what exactly happened.
Haddad said that protesters started gathering in Tahrir Square in Baghdad on Wednesday evening and made their way to the Green Zone.
“Without any resistance from security forces, they were able to bring a few walls down and the protesters enter the Green Zone. And eventually from there, they entered Iraq’s Parliament,” he said.
Marco Werman: How were they eventually cleared out of the building?
Hamzeh Hadad: So, throughout that time, there was coverage and live-tweeting from various people. But of course the most important one was from Muqtada al-Sadr himself. And eventually he had a tweet saying, “protesters, you’ve done your job, you’ve scared the corrupt. It’s time to go home now. You’ve sent your message,” and you slowly started seeing the protesters make their way back home. And this morning in Baghdad, everything was back to normal.
The protesters are part of Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement. Sadr, let’s remember, is a former US adversary. What triggered these protests and what exactly are the protesters’ demands?
The protesters were Sadrists, and they were protesting the announcement of the Sadr’s rivals, the coordination framework, which is a coalition of the major Shiite parties other than the Sadrist movement. They had come together and came out with time and said [they] have Mohammed Sudani as their nominee for prime minister. And then 24 hours later, we started seeing these protests. It was the moment of opportunity for the Sadrists to flex their muscles and show his political rivals that whoever they choose for prime minister, whoever forms the next government, that they have the ability to to mass protest and challenge any government.
So, do the Sadrists feel left out of the process?
Well, they put themselves out of the process in October 2021. Iraq had their sixth parliamentary elections after the US invasion in 2003, and the Sadrists actually won the most seats at the time with 73, far from the 165 needed for a majority. But Iraq has yet to see a political party win that much in an election. And so the Sadrists had 73. They were the leading party in negotiating for a government, but they weren’t able to bring enough numbers to form a government. And so the Sadrists actually resigned, which was a move that hasn’t been done before and caught everyone by surprise.
So the Sadrists during the US occupation were decidedly opposed to the Americans being there. What do they stand for today?
They claim to be Iraqi nationalists. And a lot of observers, when they read that, they assume that means anti-Iran. But that’s not necessarily true. There’s not a single political party in Iraq, whether it’s Shias, Sunni or Kurdish, that’s anti-Iran. But what we’re seeing in Iraq is for for the first time in many years, some stability. When there’s less violence, there’s more opportunities for political parties to play politics. And that’s what we’re seeing now, political parties trying to play a game of dominance and exert themselves over one another because they see that they can take the opportunity to do so.
I think these political rivals could actually work together to get to some kind of agreement on a path forward for Iraq.
Well, Iraq is a funny country, and I suspect that, you know, something like what happened yesterday could escalate. Now, having said that, this isn’t the first time the Sadrists have actually stormed the Green Zone and stormed Parliament. They’ve done it before as a form of sending a message, and it’s really a strong message. But that’s where we have to be cautious and hope that Iraq’s political leaders know when to stop playing politics, not push too far and eventually come together to form a government because there is no party with a majority and we have to have a coalition for a new government.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.