Baghdad plunges into violence, intra-Shia confrontations in offing
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!”