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Protesters Storm Iraq Parliament

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'd like to find out what's happening in Baghdad now, where hundreds of Iraqi Shia protesters stormed into the heavily fortified Green Zone on Saturday, pulling down blast walls, occupying the Parliament building and accosting some deputies. Many were chanting slogans, demanding an end to corruption and a stagnant political system that hasn't raised living standards. Ahmed Maher from the BBC is in Baghdad, and he's going to tell us more. Ahmed, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

AHMED MAHER: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Can you describe the scene there now and what happened overnight?

MAHER: Yeah, it's a very dramatic development because the protestors decided to pull out from the Green Zone. And the Green Zone, it's home to the foreign embassies, the cabinet, the parliament. So they decided to pull out at a request from the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

And they are giving the politicians another chance to meet this month for - not just for changing the faces of the new ministers, but they need to feel great improvement, especially at the economic level. Otherwise, they threatened that they will come back to the Green Zone to stage an open sit-in. And also, they threatened to topple the three presidencies. I mean here the president of the republic, the prime minister and the speaker of Parliament.

MARTIN: Why is breaching the Green Zone so significant?

MAHER: Well, it is very significant because this is the seat of power in Iraq. By occupying it briefly by the protestors, they wanted to send a strong message - a message to the government, to the MPs and the outside world that they are now dictating the political landscape in Iraq.

MARTIN: Now you mentioned that the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered or suggested that the protesters leave the area. Did he organize this protest to begin with?

MAHER: Well, I mean, just one word from Mr. Sadr is enough to amass hundreds of thousands. This guy is massively popular among Iraqis because many of them, especially the Shia and even the Sunni now, they see him as a symbol of resistance against the American invasions and occupation of Iraq in 2003.

So Mr. Sadr held a press conference because he was frustrated. He was angry, and he expressed his anger at the politicians. And straightaway, immediately after he finished his press conference based on the Green Zone and of course the army - and the security forces didn't do anything because he wanted to avoid any bloodshed.

MARTIN: Is what happened in the Green Zone seen to have damaged the standing of the prime minister?

MAHER: Well, I think he might be seen in the West now as a weak prime minister because they are pinning high hopes on a strong, stable government here in Iraq. And that's why Mr. Joe Biden came all the way in an unannounced visit, to support Mr. Abadi. But now, what happened yesterday, it was quite an embarrassment to Mr. Abadi himself.

MARTIN: That's the BBC's Ahmed Maher. He's joining us from Baghdad. Ahmed, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MAHER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.