Rival Shia groups square off over Iraq leadership vacuum

Rival Iraqi factions took to the streets of Baghdad to demand a new government, including supporters of religious scholar Moqtada al-Sadr, saying his Iran-backed opposition must respect the results of last October’s vote.

Thousands of al-Sadr’s followers prayed outside parliament on Friday in support of the populist leader, who has called for the dissolution of parliament by the end of next week.

Hours later, supporters of Iran-backed groups opposed to al-Sadr rallied on the edge of the walled Green Zone, where parliament and foreign embassies are located, to demand that he form a new government based on October elections.

Al-Sadr’s followers stormed parliament last month and have been picketing outside the assembly building in the Iraqi capital since then.

Hostilities between the two sides reflect deep divisions within Iraq’s Shia community, which makes up 60 percent of Iraq’s more than 40 million people. Unlike Iran-backed groups, al-Sadr wants better relations with Arab countries, including Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the region.

Al-Sadr has been a harsh critic of the oil-rich country’s widespread corruption, with broken infrastructure, a poor majority and a lack of basic services due to the US-led war and subsequent violence.

Al-Sadr, whose camp won the most votes in parliamentary elections last October, failed to form a majority government and abandoned the effort after eight months of deadlock and jockeying with rival factions.

Members of al-Sadr’s parliamentary group resigned but instead of allowing their rivals – the Coordination Framework – to try to form a government, al-Sadr has called for the dissolution of parliament and early elections. It is not clear whether he has any legal basis for those demands.

‘Administration of Parliament’

Friday’s protests and counter-protests were the latest in a series of protests that have sparked fears of unrest if the political stalemate persists.

Religious and political leaders command the loyalty of large numbers of people, and militia groups operate independently of the central government. The stalemate, now in its 10th month, is the country’s longest since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the political system.

“We are protesting those who are occupying parliament and threatening the judiciary,” said Abbas Salem, a university student who was part of Friday’s rally by Iran-backed groups.

Salem was holding posters of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Shia militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in a US drone strike in January 2020. I worry that if al-Sadr forms a government, he will disband the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces, mostly Iran-backed Shiite militias.

Another protester, Ahmed al-Maliki, 52, said he was against the “occupation of parliament” by al-Sadr followers and that Iraq needed a new government as soon as possible.

‘No Going Back’

Meanwhile, al-Sadr’s supporters in Baghdad and most of Iraq’s Shiite-majority provinces – except for the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala – held their own rallies and held Friday prayers outdoors in a show of strength.

In Baghdad, most wore black to mark the Muslim month of Muharram, and some wore burial shrouds and white caps to signify their willingness to die for their cause.

“You will not break Iraq as long as Sadr is here,” an imam told the crowd from a large red stage set up outside parliament. “There will be no retreat from this revolution … and the people will not give up their demands.”

In the hot summer, men picked their way through the worshipers and sprayed them with cold water. Some carried portraits of al-Sadr and his father, a prominent Muslim scholar, as well as the Iraqi flag.

Al-Sadr counts millions of Iraqis among his followers and has shown that if he needs to exert political pressure, he can mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters, mostly working-class Shiite Muslims.

Hamid Hussain, a father of five, said, “I am here to call for early elections and to ensure that all corrupt faces are dropped in the upcoming elections…I have become jobless because of corrupt parties.”

As night fell, protesters supporting pro-Iran groups began erecting tents to begin an open sit-in until their demands are met.

“Today we will hold a dharna…people cannot handle another election…we are tired,” said Mohammad Yasin, 35, a day labourer.

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