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Protesters Pull Back From Baghdad's Green Zone After Rushing Parliament


Baghdad's Green Zone is a walled enclave built by the United States to protect Iraq's most important government buildings. The country's Parliament is inside the Green Zone. So is the U.S. Embassy.


To many Iraqis, the Green Zone is a symbol of a corrupt government aloof from its people. This past weekend, hundreds of protesters broke through the walls and rushed into the Parliament building. They left only after a prominent cleric told them to. James Jeffrey served as the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad. He joins us now in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Ambassador.

JAMES JEFFERY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: The Green Zone is supposed to be the most secure place in Iraq. What does it say about that security in this country that hundreds of people could storm inside and wreak havoc?

JEFFERY: The hundreds of people - actually, it was probably thousands - were supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the clerical leader of a political Islam faction from the South. And they were basically let in because nobody wanted to shoot them. It's that simple.

MARTIN: So the security - Iraqi security forces - didn't have an incentive to keep them out.

JEFFERY: Exactly. They were basically ordered if you can keep them out with tear gas, if you can keep about with warning shots, fine. But you don't kill unarmed protesters because they want to come in to the Green Zone. That's the flaw in the security there.

MARTIN: What do the protesters want?

JEFFERY: What they want is whatever Muqtada al-Sadr wants. But what he wants - and they would join him in that - is a better government and less corruption and less bickering among the political parties. What Muqtada himself wants is political power.

MARTIN: So let's talk a little bit more about Muqtada al-Sadr. Our listeners will remember that name from the war in Iraq. Remind us who he is and how Iraqis see him.

JEFFERY: He is a member of one of the top clerical Shia Muslim families in Iraq. The Sadrs go back generations. There were Sadrs in Lebanon. The missing imam who Gaddafi killed was part of the Sadr family. So it's one of the nobility of the Iraqi and the region's Shia Muslim world. And his father was a prominent, prominent, very senior ayatollah who was famous for mobilizing the masses - the poor people - behind him in his social welfare projects. Thus, Saddam had Muqtada's father and Muqtada's two brothers killed one day in southern Iraq. Muqtada is the only survivor of the family.

MARTIN: You say he wants power. How do Iraqis feel about that?

JEFFERY: Many of them support him, certainly among Shia Muslims. He keeps reaching out to Sunni Arabs with some success recently. They feel that his militia is the most disciplined of all that operate in their areas. But he claims he doesn't want to rule Iraq himself. What he wants to do is to be the power behind the throne, and he took a big step in that direction this weekend.

MARTIN: Obviously, an unstable Iraq means further destabilization in the region. Let's move, if we could, to Syria because you have been critical of the Obama administration's strategy, or lack of strategy as you see it, in Syria. U.S. and Russian officials are in Geneva today, trying to preserve a cease-fire which has nearly collapsed. What is at stake if they fail?

JEFFERY: What is at stake is two things. First of all, the victory of the Assad regime, supported by Russia and Iran, over the vast majority of the Syrian population - the Sunni-Arab component certainly - and a victory that is achieved by the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of mainly civilians and driving millions out of Syria, including into Europe, destabilizing Europe.

This is a huge tragedy, and the region if this continues further is on a tipping point for a Sunni-Shia regional battle. And that's all because we, the United States and the West, have not acted to try to bring an end to this in any effective way.

MARTIN: So what would be the one concrete step that you think the U.S. could take right now to move the needle on the situation in Syria?

JEFFERY: Arm the rebels more effectively and create a safe zone in the North that will dampen the violence and make it clear to the Russians at least that there is no way that they and their allies are going to win this thing. They're going to get more and more involved into a stalemate.

MARTIN: James Jeffrey is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is also the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Ambassador Jeffrey, thank you so much for coming in.

JEFFERY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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