IRAQ BAGHDAD POLITICS protest parliament.jpg
Photograph: EPA/AHMED JALIL

Hundreds of Iraqi protesters stormed parliament Saturday demanding sweeping reforms to tackle corruption, in a dramatic escalation of the country's crippling political crisis.

The protesters, loyal to influential Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, rushed into parliament after tearing down the walls of the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses several foreign embassies along with government ministries, witnesses said.

The crowd moved into the assembly shortly after it adjourned a scheduled meeting to vote on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's new cabinet nominees.

"Security forces did not block our way," a protester said, noting that "all parliamentarians escaped from the place on seeing us."

Parliamentary Speaker Salim al-Jabouri condemned the storming, calling it an "aggression of the state prestige."

Television images showed demonstrators waving the national flag inside parliament hall as a group of young protesters beat a fleeing lawmaker.

"We understand the need for reforms, but we must follow peaceful practices," al-Jabouri, a Sunni, said in a statement.

He warned that the Islamic State extremist militia, which is holding key areas in Iraq, could take advantage of the crisis to expand its presence in the country.

Al-Abadi said that security forces were in control of the situation in the Green Zone.

"I call on demonstrators to stick to peacefulness and refrain from attacking public and private properties," he said in a statement.

Security was stepped up across Baghdad after the breach.

"All access roads to Baghdad have been closed. Departures are only allowed, in order to prevent infiltrators from entering the capital," said Brigadier Saad Maan, a spokesman for Baghdad Operations Command.

He denied reports that a curfew has been imposed in Baghdad or the road to the capital's airport blocked.

Maan warned that security agencies would use force against any act of vandalism.

"Security troops have got orders to protect diplomats inside and outside the Green Zone," he said.

The Interior Ministry denied media reports that gunfire and teargas were used to disperse protesters inside the Green Zone.

Later Saturday, some protesters pitched tents outside the parliament in a sign of a sit-in there, Iraqi media reported.

In recent weeks, al-Sadr's followers have held a series of protests outside the Green Zone pushing for reforms, including the creation of a government of independents.

In a televised address earlier Saturday, al-Sadr criticized delay in implementing reforms, which he said were necessary to fight corruption and establish good governance.

The 42-year-old cleric accused unnamed politicians of blocking efforts to rein in corruption and end the Iraq's political patronage system.

"[The politicians] have rejected the will of people and their roaring demand for reform," al-Sadr said, stopping short of calling on his backers to breach the Green Zone.

He said that he would temporarily quit politics and go into retreat for two months to protest the foot-dragging on reforms.

Under pressure from street protests and clergy, al-Abadi is trying to form a new government of independent technocrats. But major political blocs in parliament have thwarted the move in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, the assembly approved some nominees to the proposed government.

Iraqi governments have been formed along political and sectarian lines since the US-led 2003 invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein. Critics say the system contributes to corruption.

Al-Abadi has warned that the current crisis could hamper Iraq's US-backed fight against Islamic State forces.

At least 24 people were killed and 33 injured Saturday in a car bombing claimed by Islamic State in a suburban Baghdad area.

The blast took place near a marketplace in the neighbourhood of Nahrawn in south-eastern Baghdad, where Shiite pilgrims were on their way to visit a holy shrine.

The Islamic State group, a radical Sunni movement, regards Shiites as heretics.

The al-Qaeda splinter movement has a record of launching deadly attacks against Shiite communities in Iraq and elsewhere.

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