Thousands of followers of an influential Shiite cleric breached Iraq's parliament on Saturday, for the second time this week, protesting government formation efforts led by his rivals, an alliance of Iran-backed groups. The alliance called for counterprotests, raising the specter of civil strife. Iraqi security forces initially used tear gas and sound bombs to try to repel the demonstrators and caused several injuries. Once inside, the protesters declared an open-ended sit-in and claimed they would not disperse until their demands are answered, the AP reports. As the numbers inside the parliament swelled, the police backed off.
An expected parliament session did not take place Saturday, and there were no lawmakers in the hall. By late afternoon, the Ministry of Health said that about 125 people had been injured—100 protesters and 25 members of the security forces. Earlier in the day, heeding the calls of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the demonstrators used ropes and chains to pull down cement barricades leading to the gate of Iraq's heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings and embassies. Al-Sadr has resorted to using his large grassroots following to pressure his rivals, after his party was not able to form a government despite having won the largest number of seats in the federal elections held last October. With neither side willing to concede, and al-Sadr intent on derailing government formation efforts lead by his rivals, Iraq's political paralysis has ushered in a new era of instability.
Later Saturday, al-Sadr's rivals in the Coordination Framework—an alliance of Shiite parties backed by Iran and lead by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—called on its supporters to conduct peaceful counterprotests to defend the state, a statement from the group said. The call raises fears of possible large-scale street battles and bloodshed, unseen since 2007. Al-Maliki is al-Sadr's chief rival, and both men are powerful in their own right. "Civil peace is a red line and all Iraqis must be prepared to defend it in all possible, peaceful, means," the alliance said. The United Nations expressed its concern of further instability and called on Iraqi leaders to de-escalate.
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