Hundreds of Iraqi protesters stormed parliament on 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 breaching the walls of the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses several foreign embassies along with government ministries, witnesses said.
They moved into the assembly shortly after it adjourned a scheduled meeting to vote on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's new cabinet nominees.
TV footage showed many demonstrators waving the national flag inside parliament hall.
"Security forces did not block our way," a protester said, adding that "all parliamentarians escaped from the place on seeing us."
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 warned that security forces would use force against any attack on public and private properties.
"Security troops have got orders to protect diplomats inside and outside the Green Zone," Maan added. "The situation is under control."
Gunfire and teargas were used inside the Green Zone, independent Iraqi website Alsumaria News reported without giving details.
The site also reported that some protesters started a sit-in inside the area.
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.
Earlier on Saturday, al-Sadr criticized in a televised address 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 country’s political patronage system.
"They [the politicians] have rejected the will of people and their roaring demand for reform," al-Sadr said.
He added 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 clergymen, 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 members of the proposed government nominees.
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 can hamper the country's US-backed fight against Islamic State, which controls key areas in Iraq's Sunni heartland.
At least 24 people were killed and 33 injured 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.
Islamic State, a radical Sunni group, regards Shiites as heretics.
The al-Qaeda splinter movement has a record of launching deadly attacks against Shiite communities in Iraq and elsewhe.
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