Even before America sealed it off with blast walls and razor wire, the area now known as the Green Zone in central Baghdad was viewed with a mixture of fear and loathing. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s brutal late dictator, adorned his palaces with monuments to himself. After toppling him, the American-led coalition moved into one of these—the Republican Palace—and the Green Zone developed around it.
The fortifications were meant to be temporary; a response to an insurgency outside. But as the Americans withdrew, Iraq’s new leaders replaced them in the citadel—and as the main target of an angry public.
It has been 13 years since the fall of Saddam, but many Iraqis are still struggling to get by. Successive governments, detached from the people, have produced little more than staggering levels of corruption and incompetence. Idle officials sit in air-conditioned offices even as the population lacks basic services. Progress seemed possible last year, when Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister, introduced a reform agenda, ostensibly backed by the entire parliament. But Members of Parliament’s’ swift reversion to bickering merely fuelled public outrage, which boiled over on April 30th, when hundreds of Iraqis stormed the Green Zone.
After smashing some furniture in parliament, and beating one of its members, the protesters quickly retreated. But their actions deepened Iraq’s worst political crisis since the fall of Saddam in 2003.
The proximate cause is a dispute over cabinet posts, which are divvied up between political blocs based on sect and ethnicity. The blocs have mostly plundered the ministries under their control. Mr. Abadi has tried to shrink the cabinet from 22 ministers to 16 (he previously cut 11 posts), and to replace the political appointees with technocrats who might actually do their jobs. His efforts are backed by America, Iran and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shia Islam’s chief religious authority. He also has the support of Muqtada al-Sadr, a mercurial Shia cleric whose followers dominate the protest movement.