BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi security forces ramped up their presence across Baghdad on Friday, blocking most major roads and bridges to keep followers of Shi‘ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr from reaching the government district they stormed a week earlier.
A Sadr representative meanwhile called on supporters to rally outside local mosques following afternoon prayers, rather than gathering near the heavily fortified Green Zone, a move which could reduce the risk of clashes.
The demonstrations are aimed at pressuring Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to follow through on months-old promises to replace party-affiliated ministers with independent technocrats as part of an anti-corruption drive.
Iraq has endured months of wrangling over the proposal, with a divided parliament withholding approval amid scuffles and protests. Deep frustration among Iraqis over the deadlock culminated on Sunday in the unprecedented breach of the Green Zone, which houses parliament, government offices and many foreign embassies.
United Nations envoy to Iraq Jan Kubis told the U.N. Security Council on Friday that the situation remains unpredictable and could unfold in many different directions.
“A business-as-usual approach simply will not be enough for the people. They want genuine change that will improve their lives,” Kubis told the Security Council.
In his prepared remarks, seen by Reuters, Kubis also said that solutions being discussed to end the political crisis would not meet the demands of the people and therefore demonstrations were likely to continue.
Security officials said on Friday three regiments from an elite police division that has battled Islamic State militants were deployed in and around the Green Zone.
On one bridge stretching over the Tigris River, dozens of counter-terrorism forces manned Humvees mounted with machine guns. They stood behind two consecutive barriers made of 12-foot (3.6 meter) blast walls spanning the bridge.
The head of Sadr’s political office said large-scale demonstrations had been postponed until Tuesday, when tens of thousands of protesters would be mobilized to rally outside an expected parliament session.
At least four soldiers were killed and seven others wounded on Friday when a suicide car bomber attacked an army checkpoint in the western part of the capital, police sources said. Two bombs in nearby Abu Ghraib killed three people and wounded 13. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts.
Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Kareem Raheem in Baghadad and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by James Dalgleish