Supporters of Iraqi cleric Sadr storm back into Baghdad's Green Zone

By Maher Nazih

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Thousands of supporters of Shi'ite populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed Baghdad's fortified government zone on Saturday for the second time in a week, escalating a political stand-off that is hitting ordinary Iraqis hardest.

Protesters rallied by Sadr and his social-political Sadrist Movement tore down concrete barriers and entered the Green Zone, which houses government buildings and foreign missions, heading for Iraq's parliament, a Reuters witness said.

The scenes followed similar protests on Wednesday, although this time several protesters and police officers were hurt as Sadr's supporters threw stones and police fired teargas and stun grenades, according to security officials and medics.

Sadr's party came first in a general election in October but he withdrew his lawmakers from parliament when he failed to form a government which excluded his Shi'ite rivals, mostly groups backed by Iran.

Sadr has since made good on threats to stir up popular unrest if parliament tries to approve a government he does not like, saying it must be free of foreign influence and the corruption that has plagued Iraq for decades.

The Sadrists chanted against Sadr's political rivals who are now trying to form a government. Iraq has been without a president and prime minister for a record period because of the deadlock.

Sadr maintains large state power himself because his movement remains involved in running the country - his loyalists sit in powerful positions throughout Iraqi ministries and state bodies.

Iraqis linked neither to Sadr nor to his opponents say they are caught in the middle of the political gridlock.

While Baghdad earns record income from its vast oil wealth, the country has no budget, regular power and water cuts, poor education and healthcare, and insufficient job opportunities for the young.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Baghdad and Amina Ismail in Erbil; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Helen Popper)