Iraqi cleric’s supporters camp in parliament for second day

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Hundreds of supporters of an influential Shi’ite cleric camped out inside the Iraqi parliament Sunday after toppling security walls around the building and storming the day before.

The protesters, followers of Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have vowed to stage an open sit-in to derail efforts by their rival Iranian-backed political groups to form the country’s next government.

The events have catapulted Iraq’s politics to center stage, plunging the country deeper into political crisis as a power struggle between the two main Shiite groups unfolds.

On Sunday, the sit-in looked more like a joyous celebration than a political protest: Supporters of Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr danced, prayed and chanted inside parliament, praising their leader.

In between, they took naps on the mattresses that covered the great halls.

It was a completely different scene from Saturday, when protesters used ropes and chains to tear down concrete walls around Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, then flooded the assembly building. It was the second such breach in the past week, but this time they did not disperse peacefully.

Iraqi security forces fired tear gas and solar grenades at first, to try to repel the protesters. The Health Ministry said some 125 people were injured in the violence: 100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces. Within a few hours, the police backed down, leaving the parliament to the protesters.

Outside the building, litter from food parcels and other rubbish littered the street leading to the parliament gate as trucks hauled in giant pots of steaming rice and beans to feed protesters.

There was also humor inside parliament on Sunday among al-Sadr’s supporters.

One protester, Haidar Jameel, took over the seat of Parliament Speaker Mohammed Halbousi, one of Iraq’s most powerful political figures, and from there, looked down on his rowdy fellow protesters in the assembly.

After al-Sadr’s supporters seized parliament, Halbousi suspended future sessions until further notice.

“This is an open sit-in, we will not return until our demands are met,” he declared.

Crates of bottled water were stacked in the street and tents were erected. A little boy handed out candy, teenagers sold juice in sacks.

The seizure of parliament showed that al-Sadr was using his large supporter base as a pressure tactic against his rivals in the Coordination Framework, an Iranian-backed alliance of Shiite parties led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. after his party was unable to form a government despite winning the most seats in the federal elections held last October.

Neither side appears willing to budge and al-Sadr appears intent on derailing government formation efforts by Iranian-backed groups.

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