Saturday, April 30, 2016

Warning: Sadrists Storm the Green Zone

By Patrick Martin

Key Take-Away: Iraq’s political crisis has intensified. Hundreds of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone on April 30 and entered the Council of Representatives (CoR) building. Sadr and Sadrist Trend leaders have urged for a peaceful demonstration but have not ordered the demonstrators to leave the area, indicating that the Green Zone may see an extended sit-in. Violence is a possibility as the security forces attempt to secure Baghdad, particularly as they are already stretched thin protecting thousands of Shi’a pilgrims descending on Kadhimiyah neighborhood for the commemoration of the death of the Imam al-Kadhim, a major Shi’a holiday. ISIS will likely attempt to take advantage of the security breach by launching spectacular attacks against demonstrators and pilgrims. There is a potential threat to U.S. bases and infrastructure, though Sadr has ordered his followers not to approach any embassies. Iraq’s government is now at its most unstable, as the CoR is physically inaccessible to many members of government amid reports that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi were evacuated from the Green Zone. 

[Above: Demonstrators flood the Constitution Hall room in the CoR building on April 30.]

The political crisis in Iraq is intensifying. Hundreds of supporters of Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the gates of the Green Zone. They forced their way into the Council of Representatives (CoR) building following the end of the scheduled CoR session. U.S. and international facilities in Baghdad are at some increasing risk, and should the situation escalate further the deteriorating security may ultimately affect some U.S. forces and basing. The UN has closed its building in the Green Zone while the Baghdad Operations Command and the U.S. Embassy have gone on alert. The safety of Iraq’s political leadership is at risk. Security forces have also evacuated Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi from the Green Zone, though the location to which they were evacuated is unclear. The Sadrists have begun a sit-in within the parliament and are damaging the building’s interior. At least one CoR member, Fadhila Bloc leader Ammar Tuamah, has been assaulted by Sadrist demonstrators as he attempted to leave the area.

This is not the first time that Sadrist protesters have physically challenged security forces near the Green Zone.  On March 18, Sadrist protesters charged Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) at the Republican Bridge en route the Green Zone, and the ISF removed the barrier to allow them to advance apparently under the order of the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC). The protesters did not, however, enter the Green Zone itself. Sadr himself conducted a sit-in himself thereafter in a tent in the Green Zone on March 27 as a continuation of the protest movement to pressure the government to conduct a cabinet reshuffle, though he ordered his supporters to remain outside of the Green Zone.

The April 30th riot and assault of the CoR building appears to have been organic rather than planned. The Sadrist Trend’s leadership initially demanded that all demonstrators immediately vacate the CoR building, though they apparently later decided simply to order the sit-in in the CoR building to be conducted in a peaceful manner, a sign that the leadership may exploit the crisis. The supervisor of the Sadrist sit-in movement had coordinated with security forces for a peaceful demonstration the night before and was physically overseeing the sit-in site in front of the Green Zone when the demonstrators began storming it, suggesting but not proving that Sadrist Trend leaders did not plan to enter the Green Zone.

The violence erupted after the Council of Representatives (CoR) met on April 30 to select new ministers as part of the cabinet reshuffle process. Although the CoR had successfully voted in five new technocratic cabinet ministers during the April 26 session, but the remainder of Abadi’s list has met resistance. Political blocs, including the Sunni Etihad bloc and the Kurdistan Alliance, clearly did not want to cede control over certain cabinet seats, causing deadlock in the CoR session. This prompted the members of al-Ahrar Bloc, the political wing of the Sadrist Trend, to withdraw from the session. Sadr announced a freeze of all of the Sadrist Trend’s political activity for two months, warning of the possibility of a government collapse if quotas and corruption persisted.

Indicators that the immediate crisis will de-escalate include:

- Protesters cease destroying property
- Sadr orders protesters to depart the CoR or Green Zone
- Protesters depart the CoR building
- Protesters disperse ISF regains control over the Green Zone

If these conditions are not met, the likelihood of immediate violence will continue.  Indicators of further escalation will include not only failure to meet those conditions, but also:

- Sadr encouraging further protests;
- The reinforcement of Baghdad by security forces or militias from outside;
- Further violence against the compounds of other political leaders or the leaders themselves;
Violence against U.S. or international installations in Baghdad.

If these conditions are not met, the  violence and mass street demonstrations will likely continue. 

Sadr could attempt to leverage the physical presence of demonstrators in the Green Zone for concessions from other political blocs and the government – he could, for example, try and start a sit-in in the Green Zone itself. His most recent orders to the demonstrators called for respecting public property and not approaching embassies in the Green Zone, but did not include an order to leave the area, indicating that Sadr may attempt to keep his followers in the area to pressure PM Abadi and the government to pass a fully technocratic cabinet reshuffle. A public sit-in in the CoR building is thus possible, which places the security forces responsible for protecting the CoR building at risk of either escalating or being over-run. While an extended Sadrist sit-in would be an escalation, attempts by the security forces to evict or shut off supplies and access to the demonstrators could spark further violence in the Green Zone that would cause security in Baghdad deteriorate to untenable levels.

Even the current escalation of the crisis will likely spark intensive meetings between political bloc leaders to resume in order to find a solution to the cabinet reshuffle. The U.S. and Iran will likely intensify efforts to pressure political leaders into achieving stability. Sadr will likely participate in negotiations in some capacity but continue the suspension of the Sadrist Trend’s participation in CoR sessions, effectively suspending the CoR until further notice.

The demonstration comes at an extremely dangerous time – thousands of Shi’a pilgrims are descending on Kadhimiyah in northwestern Baghdad from across Iraq for the commemoration of the Imam al-Kadhim on May 3, an event that has already prompted the security forces to shut many of Baghdad’s streets. ISIS has already launched an explosive attack southeast of Baghdad in the predominantly Shi’a al-Nahrawan area with a Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) that reportedly killed at least 23 people and wounded 48 others. ISIS also attempted IED attacks on April 29 targeted pilgrims at a railway station but were foiled by the security forces. The demonstrations thus threaten to expose civilians to ISIS attacks and will tax the security forces to their limits.

[Above: Sadrist demonstrators mass in the main entrance hall of the CoR building on April 30.]