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BAGHDAD – Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi Sunday night after beginning a sit-in in Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone intended to be a show of force following his calls to combat government corruption.
Earlier in the day security forces stepped aside to allow al-Sadr to enter the Green Zone after weeks of protests in the Iraqi capital. Al-Sadr has repeatedly called on al-Abadi to enact sweeping economic and political reforms.
"I am a representative of the people and will enter the (Green Zone)," al-Sadr told hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the compound's walls, asking his followers to stay outside and remain peaceful.
As al-Sadr walked through a checkpoint to enter the Green Zone, officials in charge of the compound's security greeted the cleric with kisses and provided him with a chair. Al-Sadr was accompanied by his personal security detail and the leader of his Shiite militia, Sarayat al-Salam. After he began his sit-in, al-Sadr's supporters started erecting tents and laying down mattresses.
In February, al-Sadr demanded Iraqi politicians be replaced with more technocrats and that the country's powerful Shiite militias be incorporated into the defense and interior ministries.
After weeks of growing protests in the Iraqi capital, al-Sadr repeatedly threatened to storm the compound if his demands for government overhaul were not met. Baghdad's Green Zone, encircled by blast walls and razor wire, is closed to most Iraqis and houses the country's political elite as well as most of the city's foreign embassies. Al-Sadr has called it a "bastion" of corruption.
Most Iraqis blame the country's politicians for the graft and mismanagement that are draining Iraq's already scarce resources. Unlike the widespread, largely civic protests last summer, however, al-Sadr's demonstrations are attended almost exclusively by his supporters, who have made few concrete policy demands.
Earlier this month, Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints in Baghdad again stepped aside to allow al-Sadr's supporters to march up to the Green Zone's outer walls to begin a sit-in, despite a government order deeming the gathering "unauthorized." The move called into question Prime Minister al-Abadi's ability to control security in the capital.
"I thank the security forces," al-Sadr said before beginning his sit-in. "He who attacks them, attacks me," he added.
While al-Abadi proposed a reform package last August, few of his plans have been implemented as the leader has made several political missteps and struggled with the country's increasingly sectarian politics amid the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group. Shiites dominate the central government, while the country's Kurds in the north exercise increasing autonomy and much of the Sunni population has either been displaced by violence or continues to live under IS rule.