Supporters of Iraqi clerics again occupy parliament and demand reforms


BASRA, Iraq – Iraqi protesters loyal to nationalist Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr on Saturday crowded Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone for the second time in a week to prevent the formation of a new government. They climbed over concrete barriers and pushed security forces past to enter the Iraqi parliament, fill the empty seats of representatives and shout their support for Mr Sadr: “Son of Mohammed, take us wherever you want.”

Their move effectively made it impossible for MPs to gather to form a government, a move political parties tentatively planned for Saturday.

The occupation of Parliament by Mr Sadr’s followers looked dangerously like a government takeover, not least because as the day wore on, some of his supporters moved briefly into the building where the judges’ offices are located . On social media, some Iraqi analysts expressed concern that the mob would target the homes of Mr Sadr’s political opponents.

Earlier this summer, Mr Sadr called on MPs loyal to him to resign after a federal court ruled that two-thirds of parliament had to agree on a president and his coalition could not gather enough votes for one person. Mr Sadr thought his rivals would ask him to return, but instead the second largest coalition, including Shia groups that had or had armed elements with Iran, rushed the empty seats with its own candidates and prepared to fill a government.

It is the intrasectarian nature of the current tension that makes it so dangerous, said Abbas Kadhim, the director of the Iraq Initiative for the Atlantic Council.

“In Iraq we used to have disputes in an intersectarian way – the Shia Muslims versus Sunni, the Arabs versus the Kurds – but now we are moving to a more dangerous place that has real intra-Shia, intra-Kurdish, intra-Sunni rivalry,” he said. .

“People tolerate disputes with others, but disputes within a cult or an ethnicity are always a battle for the soul of the group itself, who is speaking on behalf of the group,” he added.

Mr Sadr, who led the main Shia opposition to the occupation of Iraq by the United States, supported the creation of an armed wing known as the Mahdi Army, which was involved in targeted killings of US troops and executions of Iraqis who were considered “traitors.” But Mr. Sadr later withdrew from that approach and learned how to send the millions of Iraqis loyal to him and his legendary church family to the streets if he wanted to exert political pressure.

Many of his supporters have felt like outsiders, and Mr. Sadr fueled those feelings, relying on their passion, loyalty and massive numbers to force those in power to meet, or at least consider, his demands.

However, Mr Sadr did not accurately assess the most recent political situation. Since he cannot undo his decision to withdraw from the government and is now an outsider, he has used the option left to him: send his legions of supporters to halt the formation of a new government and to demand reforms and new elections that once again bring its group power into the government.

“The protesters have made several demands that I believe are dangerous,” Sarmad Al-Bayati, an Iraqi political analyst, said in an interview.

“It can cause excitement among Iraqis; they could even get support from the Tishreen movement,” he said, referring to the thousands of protesters from different backgrounds who gathered in October 2019 to demand that the government tackle unemployment, curb corruption, provide electricity and put an end to it. to the unbridled power of the armed groups associated with Iran. Their protests blocked city centers from Baghdad to southern Iraq; More than 500 protesters were killed by security forces and armed groups, according to the United Nations, and more than 19,000 were injured.

Among the demands that could be called for are: constitutional amendment to change Iraq’s government from a parliamentary to a presidential system; appoint a caretaker government responsible for constitutional amendments and agreeing to hold early elections; and to hold corrupt officials to account, Mr Al-Bayati said.

These demands have been summed up in statements or tweets by people close to Mr Sadr in recent days.

The United Nations Mission in Iraq has issued a statement calling on political actors on all sides to calm the situation. “The ongoing escalation is deeply concerning,” the statement said. “Voices of reason and wisdom are critical to prevent further violence. All actors are encouraged to de-escalate in the interest of all Iraqis.”

There were also calls for calm from some of Mr Sadr’s political opponents, while others sounded more confrontational.

Health Ministry officials said 125 were injured by mid-afternoon. There were reports that tear gas and sound bombs were used to disperse the crowds, but government security forces have so far been held back largely at the request of Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi, who has consulted with his security forces and protesters to confrontations and accusations that he is suppressing freedom of expression.

Some of the roots of this week’s unrest go back to the 2019 protests, which raised the profile of many activists but ultimately led to little reform. Those demonstrations were initially mainly championed by civil society activists and anti-corruption advocates, who oppose Iran-affiliated militias in Iraq, as well as the government’s failure to create jobs and doggedly fight corruption. They were joined by Mr Sadr’s supporters, who also claimed to be vehemently opposed to corruption – although analysts say the ministries controlled by Sadrists are also riddled with bribes and other corruption.

Although Mr. Sadr also has ties to Iran and some of his close relatives live there, he has pushed an Iraqi nationalist agenda that asserts his and Iraq’s power, rather than loyalty to Iran.

The 2019 protests resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister, Adil Mehdi, and Mr Kadhimi’s choice to replace him until snap elections were held.

However, those elections have not led to a consensus on new political leadership for the country or reforms. Now there is no figure, whether it be Shiites, Sunnis or Kurds, who are able to reach Iraq’s diverse religious, ethnic and political identities to respond to people’s demands, said Mr Kadhim of the Atlantic Council.

The precarious state of the situation is exacerbated by the scorching summer heat in Iraq, he said. “Every time you have a crowd of people on the street, the risk of violence is 70 percent,” he said. “It’s hot, it’s summer, it’s July, it’s Iraq; you don’t want more than 20 people in one place.”

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