Baghdad plunges into violence, intra-Shia confrontations in offing

Sunday 22/05/2016
Iraqis inspecting scene of suicide car bombing

BAGHDAD - Simmering political ten­sions in Baghdad have tak­en a violent turn, threaten­ing to topple the cabinet of Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, weaken his hand in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and plunge the country into chaos.
The May 20th protests that turned violent were another dem­onstration of the rising anger among Iraqis towards a leadership class that is widely loathed.
The developments present a new challenge to Abadi’s government at a time when Baghdad has faced a surge in ISIS terror attacks that killed an estimated 200 people in fewer than ten days.
For the United States, the po­litical turmoil in Baghdad and the string of ISIS’s deadly bombings come as Washington continues to boast of progress in the war against the terrorist group elsewhere in Iraq.
With a combination of air strikes by the US-led coalition and efforts of Iraqi ground forces, ISIS was un­expectedly pushed from the west­ern city of Rutba on May 20th. Ana­lysts, however, said it was a tactical withdrawal to beef up ISIS’s pres­ence elsewhere in Anbar province — a vast desert region in western Iraq and a bastion for Sunni Muslim tribes opposed to the Shia-domi­nated government.
Rutba’s recapture will allow the reopening of the main highway be­tween Baghdad and the Jordanian capital, Amman.
The May 20th violence in Bagh­dad began when Shia militias affili­ated with powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded speedier gov­ernment reforms in a protest that saw them breach a secure govern­ment area in Baghdad — for the sec­ond time in three weeks — to storm the office of the prime minister and parliament buildings.
Police fired tear gas on the pro­testers and live ammunition into the air to disperse the crowd. Doz­ens of people were injured in the violence that lasted at least three hours. A curfew was put in place afterward.
The violence soured the care­fully knit relations between al-Sadr and Abadi — both Shia Muslim poli­ticians advocating an end to official corruption.
Al-Sadr has been a vocal critic of the pace of Abadi’s reforms, ac­cusing him of dragging his feet on ridding the government of cor­rupt officials, who have allegedly squandered millions of dollars in oil revenues, hampering urgently needed projects to provide Iraqis with a more stable electricity ser­vice, clean drinking water and oth­er infrastructure projects.
Critics, however, accuse al-Sadr’s group of having at least three cor­rupt ministers in the cabinet and blame the cleric for the tensions, saying he is flexing his muscles to return to the centre of Iraqi politics.
“He doesn’t want to become a prime minister but rather wants to go down history books as a re­formist, a nationalist leader who objected to the wrongdoings of the state and forced the government to change course,” said Mustafa Nizar, a former political science professor at the University of Baghdad.
“With the current state of affairs, things are bound to get worse to possibly fierce Shia-Shia confronta­tions the next time.”
Some police officers were seen distributing water bottles to the May 20th protesters and telling them that they too would like to see an end to corruption.
The latest protest began peace­fully until al-Sadr’s followers stormed into the Green Zone, defy­ing blast walls and razor wire. The fortified area of government build­ings and embassies was set up and named by the American military after the 2003 US invasion of Bagh­dad.
Videos on social media showed protesters ducking and running into the Green Zone to the sound of automatic gunfire. In one video cir­culated on Facebook, a man hold­ing a camera said: “There will be no surrender from this great popular revolution.”
Others chanted: “We sacrifice our blood and souls for Iraq!” and “No, no to corruption!”