Iraqi people defy ban to rally for change

Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shout slogans during a protest against corruption at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, on July 15, 2016.
Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shout slogans during a protest against corruption at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, on July 15, 2016. PHOTO; REUTERS

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Thousands of Iraqis rallied in the heart of Baghdad on Friday (July 15), in defiance of warnings from the government to stay home, to demand an end to sectarianism and corruption.

The demonstrators massed in Tahrir Square despite a decree from the security forces late on Thursday (July 14) that the rally called by populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was "unauthorised" and would be treated as a "terrorist threat".

Mr Sadr has led repeated protests, some of them breaching the central Green Zone government and diplomatic compound, calling for an end to what he says is a corrupt power-sharing system between the country's rival sectarian and political factions.

"Yes, yes to reform. No, no to sectarianism. No, no to corruption," read the placards brandished by protesters.

The rally went ahead despite a warning from Iraq's Joint Operations Command that it would not be tolerated and concerns that divisions within Iraq's Shiite majority community might undermine the fight against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Internet connections were cut.

Mr Sadr has called for a government of technocrats to replace the current party-affiliated ministers - a measure proposed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi - and has organised repeated demonstrations calling for that change.

Dr Abadi first called for a Cabinet including technocrats in February, but has faced significant opposition from powerful political forces that rely on control of ministries for patronage and funds.

Some of Dr Abadi's Cabinet nominees were approved in April, but in a blow to the premier, a court later scrapped the session, from which some lawmakers who sought to disrupt it were barred from attending.