Thousands of protesters opposed to the powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protested Monday on the outskirts of Baghdad’s fortified government zone, where Sadr’s supporters held an open occupation of the Iraqi parliament.
The rival Shia Muslim groups are affiliated with heavily armed militias, raising fears of clashes as tension mounts over the failure to form a government nearly 10 months after the October election — the longest post-election standoff in the country.
Sadr’s opponents include a grouping of parties and militias largely aligned with Iran. That group, known as the Shi’ite Coordination Framework, said Monday’s protest was aimed at protecting state institutions from the Sadrists’ civil unrest.
Outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses the parliament building that Sadr’s supporters seized last week, protesters threw rocks at police. From behind concrete fences, the police responded by spraying them with water.
“We will stay here if we are told and march in if we are told,” said one of the protesters, Abu Ahmed al-Basri, a 58-year-old teacher from Basra, waving a banner calling for the demise of outgoing Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi – who will remain as caretaker until a new government is formed.
Sadr’s supporters said they were waiting for his order. “We are ready for anything Sadr orders,” said Kadhim Haitham, on his way to participate in the parliament sit-in. “We are against the Framework. All they have are statements and no popular support.”
Sadr supporters stormed parliament twice last week with ease as security forces stepped back.
A pro-Iranian militia commander said Monday he feared clashes and hoped calm heads would prevail.
“The situation in Iraq is very difficult. We hope that God will deliver us from the fighting between the brothers. If things get out of hand, it will devastate the entire region,” said the commander, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to deal with the media.
Sadr came first in the October elections, but withdrew all of his lawmakers from parliament after failing to form a government that excluded his Shia rivals.
Since then, he has exerted political pressure through his crowds of loyal followers, mostly working-class Shias from poor neighborhoods in Baghdad and in southern Iraq, the heart of the country’s Shia majority.
Sadr’s actions have prevented his rivals, including the bitter enemy, ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, from forming a government. Parliament must elect a president and prime minister and cannot meet while occupied by Sadr’s followers.
The sadrists have called for new elections and an end to the political system that has existed since the US-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
That system divides power by sect and party, and is blamed by many Iraqis for the endemic corruption and dysfunction that for years has prevented any meaningful progress despite Baghdad’s oil wealth and relative peace following the defeat of Islamic State militants. in 2017.
Sadr is one of the main beneficiaries of that system. His loyalists run some of Iraq’s wealthiest and worst-run ministries.