Supporters of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr shout slogans during a protest against corruption at Tahrir Square in Baghdad, July 15, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Thousands of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Iraqi cleric, demonstrated against the government © Reuters

Thousands of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Iraqi cleric, defied army warnings to demonstrate against the government, highlighting simmering political unrest in Iraq.

Protesters packed in to Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and cheered as a spokesman for the Shia cleric issued a list of demands that included the sacking of the country’s top three leaders — the prime minister, president and the parliament speaker.

Haider al-Abadi, prime minister, faces intense pressure to follow through on promised reforms and pledges to crack down on state corruption.

A string of bomb attacks in Baghdad and other cities in recent weeks, which have killed more than 300 people, have exacerbated the grim mood.

Protests against the government began in 2015 but grew this year when Mr Sadr’s supporters took to the streets demanding an end to graft and a governance system based on ethnic, sectarian and party quotas. They stopped in June when Mr Sadr briefly left the country.

Mr Abadi had tried to keep the calm by focusing attention on the military campaign against Isis. Last month his government claimed a significant victory when it drove the militant group out of Falluja.

It had hoped that retaking the city, 57km west of Baghdad, would improve security in the capital. But car and suicide bomb attacks followed.

A truck bombing this month in Karrada, a shopping district in the city centre, killed nearly 300 people. It was one of the worst attacks since the US-led invasion in 2003.

A military media office had warned against yesterday’s protest, saying it was unlicensed and threatened to treat demonstrators with weapons as terrorists. The protesters countered that it would be a peaceful demonstration.

Mr Sadr — who was greeted with chants of “Yes, yes for Iraq! Yes, yes for reform!” — rose to prominence after his Mahdi Army battled US forces following the invasion. But he faded into the background until this year, when he began to shape himself as a leader of the campaign for reform.

During protests this year people ransacked the parliament and stormed Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to most embassies and many political leaders and once the base of the US occupation.

Popular anger about corruption is fuelled by poor services and decaying infrastructure, in spite of the country’s massive oil wealth.

The situation is exacerbated by an economic crisis, which is partly a result of the decline in oil prices.

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