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Protesters Rush Parliament Inside Baghdad's Green Zone


In Baghdad this weekend, protests against corruption and inactions spilled over the walls of the Green Zone. That's the secure center of government where Parliament and foreign embassies are located. Demonstrators breached the barricades, terrifying legislators.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, like the majority of Iraqis, is a Shiite. He's supported at least tacitly by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr is massively popular with poor Shiites. But Abadi is not moving fast enough for people on the streets, and we'll hear what these protests mean for the U.S.

But first, Loveday Morris is the Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post. We asked her who it was that overran security at the Green Zone Saturday.

LOVEDAY MORRIS: The protesters were largely followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a powerful Shiite cleric here in Iraq. He notoriously fought the U.S. occupation in Iraq. More recently he's been positioning himself as a real crusader for reform in Iraq, and he's been calling his followers out on the street. He's been calling for a technocratic government and an end to this sectarian quota system in Iraq which was actually introduced after 2003. And it means that political positions in Iraq are really divvied up based on sex and ethnicity.

CORNISH: And this is important especially when it comes to Parliament - right? - 'cause Parliament has been slow to make changes.

MORRIS: Right. Well, this is part of the problem, really. Abadi, the prime minister - he actually originally suggested bringing in this technocratic government. It's something that he wanted to do, but he's really been unable to push that through Parliament.

We've had chaotic scenes in Parliament. People have ended up in scuffles. And in the street, they're watching this from outside and getting very impatient. They want to see changes, but the political system is so broken that the prime minister is unable to meet that demand.

CORNISH: Now I understand this protest was mainly peaceful. Can you describe what the scene was like?

MORRIS: Sure. I mean Sadr actually gave a speech, and then moments afterwards, you had this mass of people push into the Green Zone through the security barriers. It seems that the security forces were just overwhelmed. But largely they were allowed, really, to push through the security cordons. They did, you know, ransack Parliament. This is what they - this is a symbol of the corrupt politicians in Iraq. People are very frustrated.

CORNISH: The backdrop to all of this that you've written about is that essentially Iraq is broke with declining oil revenues. How does that contribute to this instability?

MORRIS: Right. Well, this is another huge issue for Iraq. And it's one of the reasons that Abadi, the prime minister, is so desperate to actually enact reform in Iraq - because Iraq spends 4 billion a month on government salaries but because of the plunge in oil prices is only bringing in about 2 billion a month in revenue.

And people are worried about the effect of that when it comes to paying salaries for soldiers. People are worried about that when it comes to paying salaries for government workers. And if the government can't pay salaries, there's a potential for huge unrest.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what is about to happen next? The sit in is over. Does this mean there's going to be any movement in the Parliament?

MORRIS: The protests have essentially taken a pause. Sadr's gone off to Iran today. Presumably they're trying to play some kind of mediation role. But what everyone is waiting to see is whether Haider Abadi can meet the demands of the protesters. People don't even think that he can get enough MPs to Parliament to vote.

And if he does, there's a huge amount of anger and frustration with Haider al-Abadi at the moment. People blame him for the storming of the Green Zone, so even if he gets Parliament together to sit, whether they'll vote for his reforms at this point is in doubt.

CORNISH: That's Loveday Morris. She is the Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post. Thank you for speaking with us.

MORRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.