Shia cleric begins sit-in protest in Baghdad's Green Zone
Security forces have stepped aside to allow influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to start his sit-in protest in Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone, following weeks of demonstrations in the Iraqi capital.
Mr al-Sadr told hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the compound's walls: "I am a representative of the people and will enter the (Green Zone)."
After asking his followers to stay outside and remain peaceful, Mr al-Sadr walked through a checkpoint, where o fficials in charge of the compound's security greeted the cleric with kisses and provided him with a chair.
Mr al-Sadr was accompanied by his personal security detail and the leader of his Shia militia, Sarayat al-Salam. After he began his sit-in, Mr al-Sadr's supporters erected tents and laid down mattresses.
After weeks of growing protests in the Iraqi capital, Mr 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 barbed wire, is closed to most Iraqis and houses the country's political elite as well as most of the city's foreign embassies.
Mr al-Sadr has called it a "bastion" of corruption.
His protests and the Green Zone sit-in are intended as a show of power by the influential cleric as Iraq's government attempts to implement reforms aimed at tackling corruption.
Most Iraqis blame the country's politicians for mismanagement which is draining Iraq's already scarce resources.
Unlike the widespread, largely civic protests last summer, however, Mr 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 Mr 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 "unauthorised".
The move called into question Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi's ability to control security in the capital.
"I thank the security forces," Mr al-Sadr said, before beginning his sit-in. "He who attacks them, attacks me."
While Mr al-Abadi proposed a reform package last August, few of his plans have been implemented. The leader has also made several political missteps and struggled with the country's increasingly sectarian politics.
Shias 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 Islamic State rule.