Susannah George

BAGHDAD: Anti-government protesters tore down walls and poured into the Iraqi capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Saturday, where they stormed parliament in a major escalation of a political crisis that has simmered for months.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been holding demonstrations and sit-ins for months to demand an overhaul of Iraq’s corrupt and ineffective political system, but Saturday was the first time they broke into the Green Zone, home to most government ministries and foreign embassies.

Iraqi security forces fired tear gas at one entrance of the zone but appeared to be largely standing down as protesters marched through the area, chanting and waving Iraqi flags. Hundreds were still pouring into the Green Zone as night fell.

Iraq has been mired in a political crisis for months, hindering the government’s ability to combat the Islamic State group, which still controls much of the country’s north and west, or address a financial crisis largely caused by the fall in global oil prices.

Al-Sadr and his supporters want to reform the political system put in place following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, in which entrenched political blocs representing the country’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds rely on patronage, resulting in widespread corruption and poor public services.

The major blocs have until now stymied the reform efforts of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has sought to address the protesters’ demands.

Earlier Saturday, al-Sadr repeated accusations that Iraqi politicians are responsible for blocking political reforms. He did not call for an escalation in the protests, but shortly after his remarks, his supporters began scaling the compound’s walls. A group of young men then pulled down a section of concrete blast walls to cheers from the crowd of thousands gathered in the streets outside.

The Green Zone has long been the focus of al-Sadr’s allegations that the government is detached from the people. The compound is off-limits to the majority of Iraqis, as security procedures require multiple checks and specific documentation to enter.

Shortly after the breach, cellphone videos uploaded to social media showed dozens of young men running through the halls of parliament, chanting slogans in support of al-Sadr and calling for the government to disband.

Other videos showed a group of young men slapping an Iraqi lawmaker as he attempted to flee the crowd, and protesters mobbing another lawmaker’s motorcade inside the Green Zone. The footage appeared authentic and corresponded with AP reporting.

Iraqi security forces initially responded by tightening security across the capital, sealing off checkpoints leading to the Green Zone and halting traffic on main roads heading into the city, according to the Baghdad Operations Command.

But Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces, who have in the past been called on to reinforce security in the capital, said they are standing down for now.