BAGHDAD (AFP) - Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed the premier’s office on Friday after breaking into the Green Zone for the second time in three weeks, further escalating a long-running political crisis.
They faced tough resistance from forces guarding Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office but some were able to muscle past and temporarily enter the premises, though demonstrators were later pushed back by tear gas, water cannons, sound bombs and a barrage of live fire directed into the air.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command announced an open-ended curfew due to the unrest, which wounded at least 58 people, including members of the security forces, according to security and medical officials.
Sadr followers have been protesting for weeks demanding reforms and a new government, and had warned they would again break into the Green Zone again if progress was not made.
Sadr vowed on Friday that “peaceful protests” would continue, warning that “the revolution will take another form” if there are attempts to block them.
Measures by security forces to keep protesters out of the Green Zone – which were much tougher than they faced when they broke into the restricted area three weeks before – enraged the demonstrators.
“We came in a peaceful protest but the cowards began shooting at us,” said one protester, displaying handfuls of bullet casings, a white cloth shielding his face from tear gas.
“This is the biggest evidence of their cowardice and corruption,” said another protester who held up a canister fired by security forces, a black cloth tied around his face.
The protesters gathered on Tahrir Square in central Baghdad before removing barbed wire on the Jumhuriyah Bridge over the Tigris River and converging on the Green Zone.
Some were able to force one of its gates and then heading to the prime minister’s office.
“Don’t be with the oppressor, be with the nation,” they chanted as they confronted security forces guarding the entrance to Abadi’s compound, with some protesters eventually forcing their way in.
Sadr supporters posted pictures of the prime minister’s office on social media, including from the cabinet meeting room, but the protesters eventually withdrew.
It was not clear where Abadi himself was at the time of the fresh security breach.
While some demonstrators broke through a Green Zone gate located near Iraq’s parliament on Friday, while a much larger crowd of protesters remained outside.
Security forces sporadically fired tear gas into the crowd, and also shot sound bombs and live rounds overhead and sprayed demonstrators with water cannons.
Security and medical sources said some people were wounded by bullets, but most of the fire was directed into the air, and tear gas accounted for the majority of the injuries.
Protesters managed to hold the gate for some time despite repeatedly being tear gassed, but security forces eventually sallied out, firing automatic weapons into the air and unleashing more tear gas.
They forced the demonstrators back down a street alongside the Green Zone, harrying them with tear gas canisters that hissed into the middle of the crowd.
Ambulances became caught in the mass of people packing the street, which was divided by coils of barbed wire running down the median that also impeded movement.
Security forces eventually pushed the demonstrators back across Jumhuriyah Bridge.
Sadr supporters had encountered relatively little resistance when they pulled down slabs of concrete blast walls surrounding the Green Zone last month.
Abadi had subsequently sacked the security chief for the Green Zone and beefed up measures around the restricted area.
The breaches of the area – which is also home to several major embassies, including that the United States – further deepen the country’s political crisis.
Abadi has proposed reforms and wants to replace the current government of party-affiliated ministers with a cabinet of technocrats.
Many parties however have resisted a move that would undermine the very patronage system that is the main source of their power.
Sadr, a Najaf-based cleric who once fought the US occupation, has recently cast himself as a champion of the drive against corruption.
Three weeks ago, Sadr supporters had pulled out of the Green Zone a day after storming parliament but had warned they would return if no political change took place.
But parliament has failed to even reconvene since the incident.
Sadr supporters have blamed the government for a series of bomb attacks in Baghdad, including a very deadly one in their bastion of Sadr City, even though the Islamic State jihadist group claimed responsibility for them.