A supporter of Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gestures inside a tent on the fourth day of a sit-in calling for governmental reform and elimination of corruption on March 22, 2016, outside the main gates of Baghdad's Green Zone. Thousands of protesters defied a government ban earlier in the week to heed their leader's call and set up tents at the main entrances of the vast restricted area in central Baghdad which houses key state institutions as well as foreign embassies. Sadr says the goal of the protests is the formation of a cabinet of technocrats to replace party-affiliated politicians he says have perpetuated a system based on nepotism and patronage. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi himself made the proposal but he is being undermined by parties -- including his own -- whose barons are reluctant to relinquish their positions and attendant privileges. Image Credit: AFP

Baghdad: Sitting in the shade near the protest tents, Raad Al Haeri watched as convoys of armoured SUVs ferried politicians and diplomats in and out of Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The 27-year-old scrapes together around $400 a month working odd jobs and has the spare time to join the thousands of supporters of cleric Moqtada Al Sadr in their protest against corruption.

“When you see those MPs driving their huge armoured cars getting salaries of $12,000 or whatever it is, you don’t feel good. These people are stealing Iraq’s money,” he said.

A few steps away, behind coils of razor wire and rows of anti-riot police, VIP traffic through one of the main gates of the Green Zone continued as usual.

Al Sadr’s followers set up protest camps on Friday at several entrances to the restricted zone, which houses Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi’s office, parliament and foreign embassies, including the huge US mission.

They have vowed to stay until the expiry of a deadline Al Sadr gave Al Abadi to present names for a cabinet of technocrats meant to replace party-affiliated politicians they accuse of perpetuating a system based on nepotism and patronage.

The protest camps were not authorised but no incident has been reported so far and the demonstrators even bonded with the security forces.

But the mood could change in a week when the deadline expires as Al Sadr has threatened that his supporters will storm the Green Zone if their demands are not met.

“I sit here and struggle to buy bread. They still don’t understand that we are ready to die here and go into the Green Zone if Sayyed Moqtada asks us to,” said Raad.

As the protesters wait for orders from Moqtada Al Sadr from his base in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, clips of his speeches aired by his Al Taif TV channel play on a giant screen.

“There’s a good atmosphere here, it’s a big family. We meet friends we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Mohammad Mahmoud, a 29-year-old from Zafaraniya, a large southern neighbourhood of Baghdad.

“It’s well organised and we are provided with food.”

The protesters, all of them men, only stay three days in the camp and rotate with other volunteers from Al Sadr’s Shiite strongholds in Baghdad and beyond.

At the entrance of the camp, on a patch of grass, cooks prepare huge quantities of baked beans in massive pots.

Meanwhile, Hussam Jabbar “the tea man” lines up dozens of paper cups of heavily sweetened tea for the constant flow of protesters.

“Some Sunnis say the Shiites have it good because they are ruling but I want to say we are like dead, we are the worst off,” said Jabbar, wagging a finger while holding his kettle in the other hand.

“Only the parties have benefited, those politicians only represent themselves, not the Shiites,” he shouted, to cheers from the little crowd that gathered at his stand.

Many protesters are prepared to see Al Abadi as an exception in his party and think he is sincere about reform.

They see no reason for him to oppose their movement, which they see as handing him a political victory he could never achieve alone.

“If he implements our demands, he will liberate himself from his corrupt political bloc, it will be a big achievement for him,” said Ali Hashem, a 40-year-old Baghdad city council employee who took three days off to join the protest.

“If he doesn’t, he’s either too weak or one of them.”

Hashem said Al Abadi already had strong support from top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani and many foreign allies.

“We can give him the street.”