Iraq: Sadr urges others to join protest as parliament sit-in digs in

Iraq: Sadr urges others to join protest as parliament sit-in digs in
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr on Sunday lauded a 'spontaneous revolution in the Green Zone – a first step', he said, towards 'an extraordinary opportunity for a fundamental change in the political system'.
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Sadr supporters are occupying Iraq's parliament in Baghdad [Murtadha Al-Sudani/Anadolu Agency/Getty]

Powerful Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr on Sunday urged other factions to support a protest that has seen his supporters occupy Baghdad's parliament in a dispute over who should name the next prime minister.

Nearly 10 months after elections, the oil-rich country is still without a new government due to the repeated failure of negotiations and the en-masse resignation last month of Sadr's bloc – the largest in parliament.

Despite tear gas, water cannon and temperatures that touched 47C (116F), his followers stormed the legislature on Saturday after pulling down heavy concrete barricades on roads to Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, home to government buildings and embassies.

The health ministry said at least 100 protesters and 25 security personnel were hurt in the confrontation.

On Sunday, those protesters – who bedded down overnight with blankets in the air-conditioned building, which dates from dictator Saddam Hussein's era – appeared in no mood to leave, as volunteers distributed soup, hard-boiled eggs, bread and water.

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 taken into account in establishing a new government.

Sadr on Sunday took to Twitter to laud a "spontaneous revolution in the Green Zone – a first step", he said, towards "an extraordinary opportunity for a fundamental change in the political system."

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He called on "everyone… to support the reformist revolutionaries".

Both the United Nations and European Union have meanwhile warned about escalating tensions amid a socioeconomic crisis and crumbling infrastructure.

'Got the worst'

The immediate trigger for the occupation of parliament was the decision by a rival Shia bloc, which is pro-Iran, to nominate former cabinet minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani for the prime minister's post.

On Sunday morning, the demonstrators marked the Muslim month of Muharram, a traditional Shia celebration, with religious chants and collective meals.

"We were hoping for the best but we got the worst. The politicians currently in parliament have brought us nothing," said one of the protesters, Abdelwahab Al-Jaafari, 45, a day labourer with nine children.

A statement issued by a Sadr loyalist on Sunday issued instructions to the protesters, urging them to keep the premises clean, organise unarmed security patrols and to keep the sit-in going by operating in shifts.

In multi-confessional and multi-ethnic Iraq, government formation has involved complex negotiations since a 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam.

Sadr's bloc emerged from elections in October as the biggest parliamentary faction, but still far short of a majority.

In June, his 73 lawmakers quit in a bid to break a logjam over the establishment of a new government.

That led to the pro-Iran bloc becoming the largest in parliament, but still there was no agreement on naming a new prime minister, president or cabinet.

The occupation that began on Saturday was the second time within a week that Sadr's supporters had forced their way into the legislative chamber.

They left on Sadr's orders last Wednesday after about two hours inside.

'People with integrity'

Despite oil wealth and elevated global crude prices, Iraq remains hobbled by corruption, unemployment and other woes, which sparked a youth-led protest movement in 2019.

As a result of past deals, 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 supporters of Sadr view him as a champion of the anti-corruption fight.

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 corruption".

Sudani is the prime ministerial choice of the Coordination Framework alliance which includes lawmakers from the party of Sadr's longtime foe, ex-prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

It also represents the pro-Iran former paramilitary group Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, now integrated into the regular forces.

The Hashd – along with tribes and the wider security forces – were among elements Sadr urged to join his protest initiative on Sunday.

A spokesperson for the European Union expressed concern about "the ongoing protests and their potential escalation," while United Nations Secretary General António Guterres urged "peaceful and inclusive dialogue," according to his spokesman.

Iraqi Kurdish authorities in the country's north meanwhile offered to host talks in their capital of Erbil.