Following yesterday's dramatic escalation in Iraq's suddenly very unstable political situation, when Beghdad was put under a state of emergency after supporters of popular Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr breached the heavily fortified Green Zone and stormed both the parliament and government offices - an event which we dubbed the collapse of the US-created political system in Iraq - the situation has continued to deteriorate.
Protesters reached the cabinet headquarters inside the Green Zone, storming the general secretariat of the cabinet building, al-Sumaria reported, citing security officials. Security has been boosted around the central bank, the Interior Ministry said in an e-mailed statement. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq said it’s “gravely concerned” by Saturday’s developments and urged political leaders to work together to restore security in the country.
“The situation in Iraq has become very dangerous,” said Wathiq al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based political analyst said cited by Bloomberg. “No one will be able to control thousands of angry protesters while the rest of residents in Baghdad are in panic and living in real fear.”
Iraq has been mired in a political crisis for months, hindering the government's ability to combat ISIS, which still controls much of the country's north and west, or address a financial crisis largely prompted by the plunge in global oil prices. Sadr and his supporters want to reform the political system put in place following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, in which entrenched political blocs representing the country's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds rely on patronage, resulting in widespread corruption and poor public services. The major blocs have until now stymied the reform attempts of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Meanwhile, Iraq's prime minister has ordered the arrest of protesters who attacked security forces and assaulted MPs as they stormed the country's parliament in Baghdad Saturday. The protesters, who were responding to Sadr's call to pressure the government to introduce reforms, left the parliament building on Saturday night and were holding a sit-in at the Saddam-era Grand Festivities Square.
"Security forces cannot force the protesters to leave the Green Zone. Therefore the only choice that is available and will help to calm down the situation is to cooperate with the protesters, not to stand against them," an Iraqi security official told NBC on condition of anonymity.
As NBC adds, videos on social media showed a group of young men surrounding and slapping two Iraqi lawmakers as they attempted to flee the crowd on Saturday, while other protesters mobbed lawmakers' motorcades. Jubilant protesters were also seen jumping and dancing on the parliament's meeting hall tables and chairs and waving Iraqi flags. Amazingly, so far there has not been any notable violence or injuries.
"We are fed up, we are living a humiliated life," Rasool Hassan, a 37-year old father of three told The Associated Press from inside the Green Zone. "We'll leave here only when the corrupt government is replaced with another of independent technocrats that serves the people not the political parties," Hassan added.
The only way to have prevented the protesters storming the Green Zone would have been to open fire, the security official told NBC News, which would have created "great chaos" throughout the country.
The U.S. Embassy said it’s monitoring the situation, adding that reports that embassy personnel are being evacuated are inaccurate. “Under the Vienna Convention, all diplomatic missions are protected by the host country’s security forces,” it said in a statement. “We have full confidence that the Iraqi Security Forces will meet its obligations.”
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who opposes Abadi, criticized attempts to force reform “the under threat of weapons and by preventing the representatives of the people to enter the parliament.” A meeting between Abadi, Iraqi president Fouad Masoum and Parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri didn’t yield an immediate resolution to the crisis. Instead, the three condemned the storming of the legislature and said those who assaulted lawmakers during the protest should be brought to justice.
Finally, according to a Reuters update moments ago, the committee organizing the sit-in inside Baghdad's Green Zone called on protesters to leave the heavily fortified government district on Sunday, 24 hours after they overran security barriers and stormed into parliament. A spokeswoman speaking from a square outside the district said the people would exit "from a position of strength" out of respect for a Shi'ite Muslim pilgrimage underway in the capital but would return afterwards to follow up on their demands.
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And in separate news, earlier today Iraq announced that its oil exports approached a record high in April, adding barrels to a worldwide supply glut, even as protests against public corruption threatened to paralyze the government of OPEC’s second-largest producer.
Shipments rose to 3.36 million barrels a day, or 100.92 million barrels for the month, Asim Jihad, a spokesman at the oil ministry, told Bloomberg on Sunday. The figures don’t include Kurdistan Regional Government exports. The exports rose from 3.29 million barrels a day in March and were close to the November all-time high of 3.365 million barrels a day, according to oil ministry figures.
Iraq produced 4.3 million barrels a day in April, Bloomberg also reported. Output has increased from 3.25 million barrels a day two years ago with companies including BP Plc and Lukoil PJSC boosting production at fields they operate in the south of the country.
It remains to be seen if the ongoing political turmoil will have an impact on oil production and exports: "Politically, things have worsened dramatically in Iraq,” Richard Mallinson, an oil analyst with Energy Aspects Ltd., said Sunday by phone from London. "It’s a negative for the country’s oil industry over the medium term. We’re going to see production plateau and start to decline later this year,” he said, as government turmoil and spending cuts affect projects needed to maintain output.