Live footage on Iraqi television showed swarms of protesters, who have been demanding government reform, inside the parliament building, waving flags and chanting. Lawmakers were berated and beaten with flags as they fled the building, while demonstrators smashed the windows of politicians’ cars.
Baghdad Operations Command declared a state of emergency and said all roads into the capital had been closed. A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that staff were not being evacuated from their compound, which is about a mile away from the parliament building.
Iraq is in the grip of a political crisis, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attempting to reshuffle his cabinet and meet the demands of the demonstrators, who have been spurred on by the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But Abadi has been hampered by chaotic parliament sessions, where lawmakers have thrown water bottles and punches at one another.
The political unrest has brought a new level of instability to a country that is facing multiple crises, including the fight against the Islamic State militant group and the struggling economy.
“This is a new era in the history of Iraq,” screamed one demonstrator in the main lobby of the parliament, in footage on Iraqi television. “They have been robbing us for the past 13 years,” said another.
Earlier in the day, not enough lawmakers had turned up in parliament to officially convene a session in which Abadi was due to present names for a cabinet reshuffle.
The session had been postponed until the afternoon, however before it was held, Sadr, a leader in the resistance to the American troop presence in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion, held a news conference from the southern city of Najaf.
“They are against reform, they hope to behead the will of the Iraqi people,” he said of the country’s politicians. “I’m with the people, no matter what they decide. I’m standing and waiting for a major uprising of the Iraqi people.”
Shortly afterward, protesters, many of whom are Sadr loyalists, pushed through the multiple security cordons around parliament.
U.S. officials are concerned that the political crisis will have a negative impact on the country’s fight against the Islamic State, leading to a flurry of high level visits in recent weeks. “Now is not the time for government gridlock or bickering,” President Obama said of the crisis in Iraq during a visit to Saudi Arabia last week. He said that he was “concerned”.