Swarms of protesters take Iraqi parliament

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BAGHDAD - A state of emergency was declared in the Iraqi capital on Saturday as protesters stormed Iraq's parliament, after bursting into Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, where other key buildings including the U.S. Embassy are located, in a dramatic escalation of the country's political crisis.

Live footage on Iraqi television showed swarms of protesters, who have been demanding government reform, inside the parliament building, waving flags, chanting and breaking chairs. Some lawmakers were berated and beaten with flags as they fled the building while other demonstrators smashed the car windows. Others remained trapped inside rooms in parliament and feared for their lives, lawmakers said.

Baghdad Operations Command said all roads into the capital had been closed. A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that staff were not being evacuated from their compound, which is about a mile away from the parliament building. Organizers of the demonstration urged protesters not to attack embassies.

The surge of protesters into the secure area, which is off limits to most Iraqis, was the culmination of months of street protests. Under huge political pressure, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has attempted to reshuffle his cabinet and meet the demands of the demonstrators, who have been spurred on by the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But he has been hampered by a deeply divided parliament, where sessions have descended into chaos as lawmakers have thrown water bottles and punches at one another.

The political unrest has brought a new level of instability to a country that is facing multiple crises, including the fight against the Islamic State militant group and the struggling economy.

"This is a new era in the history of Iraq," screamed one demonstrator. Another said, "They have been robbing us for the past 13 years."

At the heart of the protesters' demands is an end to the political quota system, which was put in place after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and sees positions shared out between sects. Sadr has demanded a new technocratic government.

"This is an end to the political system put in place after 2003," said Shwan al-Dawoodi, a Kurdish lawmaker. "A big part of the blame for this is on America, which left Iraq without solving this crisis it created."

Earlier, not enough lawmakers had turned up in parliament to officially convene a session in which Abadi was due to present names for a cabinet reshuffle.

The session had been postponed until the afternoon, but before it was held, Sadr, a leader in the resistance to the American troop presence in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion, held a news conference from the southern city of Najaf.

"They are against reform, they hope to behead the will of the Iraqi people," he said of the politicians. "I'm with the people, no matter what they decide. I'm standing and waiting for a major uprising of the Iraqi people."

Shortly afterward, protesters, many of whom are Sadr loyalists, pushed through the security cordons around parliament.