Iraq Protesters Leave Baghdad Green Zone on Cleric’s Order

BAGHDAD — After a day of sleeping, praying and even swimming in the Green Zone, the government citadel historically off limits to ordinary Iraqis, protesters began leaving Sunday evening on orders from the man who had sent them: Moktada al-Sadr, the influential Shiite cleric.

In a statement issued from the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, Mr. Sadr directed his followers to leave the Green Zone in an orderly fashion, to chant for Iraq and not a sect, and to help clean the space they had occupied.

A day earlier, hundreds of protesters demanding an end to corruption stormed the fortified Green Zone in dramatic scenes that hinted at revolution. But by Sunday evening the episode had become something less: an affirmation of Mr. Sadr’s sway over the street, but one aimed at pressuring the government to enact promised reforms rather than bringing it down.

The question in the days ahead is whether Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is Shiite, and the rest of Iraq’s ruling elite can come together to form a new cabinet of capable ministers, and not loyalists to a party or sect, something that Mr. Sadr has demanded and Mr. Abadi has promised.

Since announcing last summer a set of measures to improve governance, Mr. Abadi has been thwarted repeatedly by parties and politicians who have long depended on Iraq’s system of patronage. They include the previous prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

The protests, which had been percolating for weeks and culminated on Saturday with the breaching of the Green Zone walls, were organized as a show of support for the promised changes. On Sunday, Mr. Abadi’s office distributed photographs of him surveying the hall of Parliament, surrounded by broken glass and damaged furniture. A statement also said the prime minister had ordered the arrests of those who had attacked lawmakers or damaged property.

Later, Mr. Abadi met with President Fuad Masum and Salim al-Jubouri, the speaker of Parliament. In a joint statement, the leaders said they condemned the storming of Parliament, and promised to continue meeting over the next days to “assure progress in reforming the political process.”

In his statement, Mr. Sadr demanded that Parliament meet soon and approve a new cabinet. If not, he said, he will push for the disbanding of the government and call for early elections.

Mr. Sadr said the departure of his followers from the Green Zone had been done out of “respect” for a Shiite pilgrimage underway, and he vowed that they would return to the streets on Friday, typically the day of protest in Iraq.

Inside the Green Zone on Sunday, protesters who had spent the night in an area called Celebration Square, once a parade ground for Saddam Hussein, seemed to luxuriate in having reached a space long forbidden to them. For many it is a place that has symbolized corruption and dysfunction.

“I used to hear about the Green Zone and used to ask myself and my friends, ‘What does the Green Zone mean?’ ” said Ali Mustafa, 21, a college student. “Entering the Green Zone was like a dream for me.”

Diyab Abdullah, 74, who described himself as a member of the Communist Party, which decades ago had a foothold in Iraqi politics, said he had walked four hours on Saturday to participate in the protest. “I did not get tired, because my goal is to take part in kicking out this failed government,” he said.

Many of the demonstrators, who had gathered near the American Embassy, said they hoped to galvanize a movement that would lead to the dismantling of the political system and its sectarian quotas, which they blamed the United States for establishing more than a decade ago. They railed at their leaders, many in power since the earliest days of the American occupation.

Talib Mohammed, an amputee who said he had lost his leg in a battle against the United States last decade, said he was demanding his rights “from the Americans and all who stole from the people and became millionaires.”

He added, “We are here to change all of the faces that have been brought by the Americans.”

The United States Embassy issued a statement on Sunday that expressed concern about the sit-in but said all Iraqis should work to “move the political and economic reform process forward” while combating the other threat to the country, the Islamic State.

While recognizing the right to peaceful protest, the embassy said, it joined others in “urging restraint and respect for constitutional institutions and respect for the rights of others.”

Though the crisis seemed to be defused for the moment, Iraq’s political system is in disarray. Lawmakers, some of them caught up in the occupation, expressed pessimism.

Haitham al-Jibouri, a Shiite member of Parliament, said, “This crisis will break the country instead of fixing it.” He called for Mr. Abadi’s resignation and said “a new government must be formed.”

He blamed Mr. Abadi for Saturday’s chaos, and noted the ease with which protesters entered the Green Zone despite tight security. There were numerous reports that security forces had allowed the protesters in as part of a deal with Mr. Sadr and his militia. The prime minister’s office denied news reports on Saturday that Mr. Abadi had ordered forces to accommodate the protesters.

“I believe Abadi allowed them to enter,” Mr. Jibouri said. “This is a mysterious scenario aimed at putting pressure on the political blocs.”

The political crisis has diverted attention from the fight against the Islamic State. The United States has lately stepped up its military support to Iraq, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Thursday to show support to Mr. Abadi.

Even as the attention on Sunday remained on the situation in Baghdad, the Islamic State carried out two devastating suicide bombings in the southern Iraqi city of Samawa. The attacks killed at least 37 people and wounded nearly 90, according to police officials and the provincial governor’s office.

Also on Sunday, the United Nations released monthly casualty statistics, reporting that 741 Iraqis were killed in terrorist acts and in fighting against the Islamic State in April. The figures were a decline from March, when 1,119 Iraqis were killed, but the United Nations office in Baghdad said difficulties in compiling the data suggested that the April totals were the “absolute minimum.”