Powerful Iraqi Shia preacher Moqtada Sadr on Sunday urged other factions to support a protest in which his followers have occupied parliament in a dispute over who should nominate the next prime minister.
Nearly 10 months after the election, the oil-rich country still has no new government due to the repeated failure of negotiations and the massive 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 followers stormed the legislature on Saturday after tearing down heavy concrete barricades on roads leading to Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, home to government offices and embassies.
The health ministry said at least 100 protesters and 25 security personnel were injured in the clash, prompting the European Union to express concerns about “escalation”.
On Sunday, the protesters – who were bedded with blankets at night – seemed in no mood to leave as volunteers handed out soup, hard-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 who are now in parliament have brought us nothing.”
In multi-denominational and multi-ethnic Iraq, government formation has involved complex negotiations since a 2003 US-led invasion overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein.
Analysts have said Sadr, a mercurial cleric who once led a militia against US and Iraqi government forces, is using protests to signal that his views must be respected when establishing a new government amid a power struggle between his bloc and rivals. Shia factions.
Sadr on Sunday went to Twitter to praise a “spontaneous revolution in the Green Zone – a first step”, he said, towards “an extraordinary opportunity for a fundamental change”.
‘Step against the people’
He called on “everyone…to support the reformist revolutionaries”.
That stance has been reprimanded by its main Shia political opponents, the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, which described Sadr’s comments as “a call for a coup d’état against the people, the state and its institutions”.
The immediate cause for the occupation of parliament was a decision by the Coordination Framework to nominate former minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani for the position of prime minister.
The rival bloc includes lawmakers from the party of Sadr’s longtime enemy, ex-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and also represents the pro-Iranian former paramilitary group Hashed al-Shaabi, which has now been integrated into the regular armed forces.
The Hashed — along with tribes and wider security forces — were among elements urging Sadr on Sunday to join his protest initiative.
A statement from a Sadr loyalist on Sunday called on protesters to keep the premises clean, organize unarmed security patrols and keep the sit-in going by working shifts.
Sadr’s bloc emerged from the October elections as the largest parliamentary faction, but still far from a majority.
In June, his 73 lawmakers shut down in an attempt to break the political blockade.
That led to the pro-Iranian bloc becoming the largest in parliament, but there was still no agreement on naming a new prime minister, president or cabinet.
Sadr’s supporters had already forced their way into the legislative chamber on Wednesday and remained there for two hours before leaving on his orders.
‘People with integrity’
Despite its oil wealth and high global crude oil prices, Iraq remains hampered by corruption, unemployment and other woes, which sparked a youth-led protest movement in 2019.
As a result of previous agreements, the Sadrists also have representatives at the highest levels of ministries and have been accused by their opponents of being as corrupt as other political forces.
But supporters of Sadr see him as a champion of the fight against corruption.
One of them, Oum Hussein, 42, said the sit-in sought a government of “people with integrity who serve the country”, while Sadr’s opponents select politicians “known for their corruption”.
A European Union spokesman expressed concern about “the ongoing protests and their potential escalation”, while United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged “peaceful and inclusive dialogue,” his spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish authorities in the north of the country offered to hold talks in their capital, Arbil.