BAGHDAD, Iraq — 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 Iraqi capital remained under a state of emergency on Sunday after supporters of popular Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr breached the heavily fortified Green Zone Saturday. Roads to and from Baghdad had reopened, however, after security forces secured the breach.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Alarmed by the latest development, the U.N. mission to Iraq said it was "gravely concerned." It issued a statement condemning violence against elected officials and urging "calm, restraint and respect for Iraq's constitutional institutions at this crucial juncture."