BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Sunday ordered that protesters who attacked parliamentarians and security forces and damaged property as they stormed the parliament building on Saturday be brought to justice.
The embattled premier called on Iraq’s ministry of interior to “chase” the troublemakers a day after they penetrated the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone demanding reform, sending Iraqi politicians fleeing.
Hundreds of demonstrators, many of whom are the followers of Iraq’s powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, were still camped out Sunday in the Green Zone. They had moved their demonstration to a parade ground next to the capital’s Hands of Victory monument, an arch of crossed swords constructed to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war.
Outside Baghdad, at least 23 people were killed when two car bombs exploded Sunday in the southern Iraqi city of Samawa, the Associated Press reported, citing security and health officials. The first explosion occurred outside the provincial government headquarters, and a second blast detonated at a bus station nearby, the report said.
The turmoil has cast doubt over Abadi’s ability to steer Iraq out of its political crisis, which has been simmering since street protests against corruption and government waste began last summer. Sadr is demanding an end to the quota system brought in after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, that sees political positions divided up based on sect and ethnicity. Abadi has called for a technocratic government, but his attempts to reshuffle his cabinet have been hampered by bickering in a divided parliament.
Abadi’s office released pictures of him touring the ransacked parliament building on Saturday night, showing smashed windows and overturned furniture.
“No one can arrest any one of us or touch any one of us because if they do that, it will escalate and turn against them,” said Maher al-Khafaji, 25, a protester camped out in the Green Zone. “Moqtada al-Sadr ordered a peaceful demonstration, but if they attack us we will defend ourselves.”
U.S. officials are concerned that the chaos may have an effect on Iraq’s fight against Islamic State militants. The country is also suffering from a budget crisis because of plummeting oil prices.
Sadr, who led an armed opposition to the presence of U.S. troops during the Iraq war, has a strong following on the street. On Saturday, after his supporters jubilantly entered the parliament building, he described the events as the beginning of a “revolution.”
“History will record the birth of a new Iraq, from the ashes of corruption and the corrupt,” he said.
Security forces declared a state of emergency in the Iraqi capital after demonstrators climbed over blast walls and broke through cordons to enter Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, also home to ministries and the U.S. Embassy. Many protesters are followers of Sadr, who has been urging his supporters onto the streets.
Lawmakers fled the building in panic, with some berated and struck as they left. Others were trapped in the basement for hours, too afraid to face the crowds who complain that the country’s political class is racked by corruption.
Many politicians said the day’s events marked a turning point.
“This is an end to the political system put in place after 2003,” said Shwan Dawoodi, a Kurdish lawmaker, speaking by phone after he fled the parliament building. “A big part of the blame for this is on America, which left Iraq without solving this crisis it created.”
He blamed the prime minister for putting lawmakers’ lives at risk, after local television reports cited Abadi as saying he had ordered that protesters be allowed into the Green Zone. Abadi’s office issued a statement denying that he had done so.
On Sunday, the U.N. Mission in Iraq said that 741 Iraqis had been killed in the country in April, including more than 400 civilians. Baghdad and surrounding areas were the worst affected, the United Nations said, with more than 230 people killed last month.
Mustafa Salim in Baghdad and Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.