BAGHDAD Powerful Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim leader Moqtada al-Sadr entered Baghdad's Green Zone, the heavily-fortified centre of the capital housing government buildings and embassies, on Sunday to keep up pressure on the government to enact reforms.
Thousands of Sadr's supporters began a sit-in at the district's gates more than a week ago and continued to camp out despite heavy rains earlier in the day, but Sadr took the protest forward by entering the zone itself.
"Beloved protesters, I will enter the Green Zone by myself and (my escorts) only. I sit in inside the Green Zone and you sit in at its gates. None of you move," he told them before walking past a security checkpoint near parliament and the upscale Rashid Hotel into the Green Zone.
Sadr is urging Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to move ahead with a plan announced more than six weeks ago to replace current ministers with unaffiliated technocrats in a bid to tackle systemic political patronage that has abetted graft.
Television channels affiliated with Sadr's political party showed him greeting guards as he entered the district with armed guards, then sit down on a white plastic chair beside concrete barriers. He sipped on bottled water before sitting on the ground inside a green tent his aides had erected.
Protesters waving Iraqi flags outside expressed support for the move by Sadr, one of the country's most savvy political operators who commands the loyalty of millions of Iraqis and has at times appeared very close to neighbouring Shi'ite power Iran.
One supporter held a sign reading: "No retreat, no blood, no surrender."
It was not immediately clear how long Sadr, the 42-year-old who rose to prominence when his Mahdi Army battled U.S. troops following the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, planned to continue his personal demonstration.
Along with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Sadr has re-emerged as a leader in matters of state in recent months after a period of relative quietude.
Abadi, who has been slow to deliver reforms but pledged to reveal a cabinet reshuffle this week, has voiced concern that Shi'ite street protests could spin out of control and endanger Iraq's security when it needs to focus on fighting Islamic State.
Corruption and the U.S.-backed war against the ultra-hardline Sunni militants are depleting the government's finances as revenues are declining due to lower oil prices.
If Abadi fails to deliver long-promised anti-corruption measures, his government may be weakened just as Iraqi forces are gearing up to try and recapture the northern city of Mosul.
The Green Zone, originally set up to protect U.S. occupation forces from suicide bombings, has been kept in place by successor Iraqi authorities for security reasons.
Roads and bridges over the Tigris River leading to the district were closed on Sunday, shutting down movement in central Baghdad as night fell.
(Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)