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Protesters leave Baghdad’s Green Zone a day after ransacking parliament

After months of tensions, the political crisis in Iraq escalated with anti-government protesters storming into parliament. This is why they are protesting. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Carrying the tents, pillows and blankets they had brought for what many expected to be a longer sit-in, supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr streamed out of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on Sunday, a day after they had broken in, ransacking parliament and demanding reform.

Akhlas al-Obaidi, a protest organizer, delivered the message of Sadr’s wishes to the crowd: Go home to give political decision-making a chance. She said protesters would be back Friday to make a “major stand” and vowed they would keep up the pressure.

The pullback by Sadr gives Iraq’s embattled prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, some breathing space, but the task ahead of him is a thorny one. The cleric has called for an end to the quota system that apportions Iraq’s cabinet positions along sectarian lines and is demanding a technocratic government. But such changes would probably be obstructed at every turn by those who think they would lose power.

Parliament descended into chaos during earlier attempts by Abadi to reshuffle his cabinet. Now the prime minister needs to get lawmakers to vote on his list of candidates at a time when many are incensed over Saturday’s security breach, which saw them fleeing from protesters who attempted to block their way and beat them on their way out.

‘We’ve had enough’: Baghdad protests challenge Iraq’s Abadi

Photos from the scene as protesters storm the Iraq parliament in Baghdad

Followers of Iraq's Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shout slogans at Grand Festivities Square within the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, May 1, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani (Thaier Al-Sudani)

Abadi met on Sunday morning with the president, the speaker of parliament and other political leaders to try to steer the country out of turmoil. A statement released afterward said they planned “intense” meetings in the coming days to work on reforms.

“Can he achieve a reshuffle? The answer is no,” said Kirk Sowell, an analyst based in Amman, Jordan, and editor of the Inside Iraq Politics newsletter. “Sadr knows that. It’s all a game.”

Before they left the Green Zone, the protesters presented their demands: Create a technocratic government or they will demand the ouster of the prime minister, the president and the speaker. If that doesn’t happen, they will demand early elections, and if all else fails, they will storm the headquarters of political leaders.

“We are going out, but we will come back,” Obaidi said. One other reason to withdraw, she said, was because of the upcoming commemoration of the death of an 8th-century imam, Musa al-Kadhim. The anniversary falls on Tuesday, and Shiite pilgrims are walking from all over the country to visit his shrine in Baghdad. That plus the breach of the Green Zone has put a major strain on Baghdad’s security services.

Before their withdrawal, the demonstrators dug in at a square that Saddam Hussein once used for his military parades, chanting from the presidential viewing platform. Arches formed of crossed swords, held by hands said to be molded in the shape of the former dictator’s, stand on either side.

Protesters in Iraq’s Green Zone do some sightseeing as they wait for reforms

“We are your servants, Moqtada” was daubed in mud on one hand. For 13 years, many Iraqis have been unable to visit this area, walled off from the rest of the city and home to parliament, ministries and embassies.

But protesters ripped down some of the blast walls Saturday and pushed through cordons. A day later, many enjoyed what was for some their first sight of some of the city’s most famous landmarks. They milled around the saucer-shaped Monument to the Unknown Soldier, built to commemorate the dead in the Iran-Iraq war. They posed for pictures next to flowers and manicured bushes.

“Saddam Hussein allowed us here, but not this regime,” said 33-year-old Salah Hassan, a fighter with Sadr’s militia Saraya al-Salam, a reincarnation of the Mahdi Army, responsible for thousands of attacks on U.S. troops during the Iraq War. Behind him swimmers splashed and dived in an ornamental fountain.

“We entered here to hunt the thieves,” he said of Iraq’s politicians.

“No one can arrest any one of us or touch any one of us, because if they do that, it will escalate and turn against them,” said Maher al-Khafaji, 25, a protester. “Moqtada al-Sadr ordered a peaceful demonstration, but if they attack us, we will defend ourselves.”

Although the majority of protesters are Sadr supporters, some of those demonstrating in the Green Zone on Sunday were not. Street protests against a lack of services and rampant corruption began last summer, initially organized by secular activists.

“We can’t compete with their size,” said Bidoor al-Jarrah, a 53-year-old theater director with an Iraqi flag draped over her shoulders. “But we planted the spark.”

She said she was happily surprised that the protesters had managed to break through and said she hoped it would lead to some changes.

After packing the square Saturday night, demonstrators had dwindled to the hundreds in the heat of Sunday afternoon. But some were arriving with supplies for a longer sit-in. “We have everything we need. We’ll be there for as long as it takes,” said Ahmed Majid, 25, carrying shopping bags and a blanket.

“If Sadr says stay for 20 years, we will stay for 20 years,” said Kamil Ghazi, 33.

But Sadr didn’t, and the protesters moved out peacefully after his order came at dusk.

The cleric has a strong following among Baghdad’s urban poor and farther afield in the southern provinces. After taking a step back from politics, he has burst back onto the scene by calling out his supporters to demand reform. He has described Saturday’s events as the beginning of a “revolution.”

Abadi has been trying for months to bring in a supposedly technocratic government, with his aims broadly aligning with those of Sadr’s. But he has been hamstrung by a parliament that does not want to see change.

“Sadr’s saying that he’s supporting Abadi, but in reality, he’s undermining Abadi,” Sowell said. “It’s all about Sadr positioning himself at the center of things.”

“I don’t think he’ll manage to get any cabinet changes,” said ­Shiite politician Mowaffak al-Rubaie. Other blocs won’t vote for them, he said, because “it implies that their ministries are incompetent and corrupt.”

Roads into the capital were reopened Sunday, but security officials have expressed concern that Islamic State militants could capi­tal­ize on the turmoil.

In the fight against the Islamic State, Iraq’s leader begins to look shaky

At least 23 people were killed when two car bombs exploded Sunday in the southern city of Samawah, the Associated Press reported, citing security and health officials.

Mustafa Salim in Baghdad and Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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