Iraqi cleric Sadr calls for wider protest as his supporters occupy parliament
Powerful Iraqi Shiite preacher Moqtada Sadr on Sunday urged other factions to back a protest that saw his supporters occupy parliament in a dispute over who should be the next prime minister.
Almost 10 months after the elections, the oil-rich country is still without a new government due to the repeated breakdown of negotiations and the mass resignation last month of Sadr’s bloc, the largest in parliament.
Despite tear gas, water cannons and temperatures reaching 47 degrees Celsius (116 degrees Fahrenheit), his supporters stormed the legislature on Saturday after knocking down heavy concrete barricades on the roads leading to the fortified green zone of Baghdad, home to government buildings and embassies.
The Health Ministry said at least 100 protesters and 25 security personnel were injured in the confrontation, prompting the European Union to express concern over the “escalation”.
On Sunday, protesters – who had been sleeping in blankets all night – seemed in no mood to leave, as volunteers handed out soup, boiled eggs, bread and water.
“We hoped for the best but we got the worst,” said one of the protesters, Abdelwahab al-Jaafari, 45, a day laborer with nine children. “The politicians currently in parliament have brought us nothing.”
In a multi-religious and multi-ethnic Iraq, government formation has involved complex negotiations since a US-led invasion in 2003 toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Analysts said Sadr, a mercurial cleric who once led a militia against US and Iraqi government forces, is using the protests to signal that his views must be respected when establishing a new government, amid a power struggle between his bloc and rival Shia factions.
sadr on sunday caught on Twitter to hail a “spontaneous revolution in the green zone – a first step”, he said, towards “an extraordinary opportunity for fundamental change”.
“Coup d’etat against the people”
He called on “everyone…to support the reformist revolutionaries”.
This stance earned him a reprimand from his main Shia political opponents, the Pro-Iran Coordination Framework, which described Sadr’s remarks as “a call for a coup against the people, the state and its institutions”. .
The immediate trigger for the occupation of parliament was a decision by the Coordination Framework to appoint former cabinet minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as prime minister.
The rival bloc includes lawmakers from the party of Sadr’s longtime foe, ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and also represents the former pro-Iran paramilitary group Hashed al-Shaabi, now integrated into the regular forces. .
The Hashed — along with tribes and wider security forces — were among those Sadr urged to join his protest initiative on Sunday.
A statement issued by a Sadr loyalist on Sunday urged protesters to keep the premises clean, organize unarmed security patrols and maintain the sit-in by operating in shifts.
Sadr’s bloc emerged from the October elections as the largest parliamentary faction, but still far from having a majority.
In June, its 73 lawmakers resigned in a bid to break the political deadlock.
This led to the pro-Iran bloc becoming the largest in parliament, but there was still no agreement on the appointment of a new prime minister, president or cabinet.
Sadr’s supporters had already stormed into the legislative chamber on Wednesday, staying there for two hours before leaving on his orders.
“People of Integrity”
Despite oil wealth and high global crude prices, Iraq remains dogged by corruption, unemployment and other woes, which sparked a youth-led protest movement in 2019.
As a result of agreements made, the Sadrists also have representatives at the highest levels of government ministries and have been accused by their opponents of being as corrupt as other political forces.
But Sadr’s supporters see him as a champion in the fight against corruption.
One, Oum Hussein, 42, said the sit-in seeks a government of “people of integrity who serve the country”, while opponents of Sadr select politicians “known for their corruption”.
A spokesperson for the European Union expressed concern about “the ongoing protests and their potential escalation”, while United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “peaceful and inclusive dialogue”, according to his spokesperson.
The semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish authorities in the north of the country have offered to hold talks in their capital Arbil.