Supporters of Iraqi cleric occupy parliament again, demand reforms

BASRA, Iraq – Iraqi protesters loyal to Shiite nationalist cleric Moktada al-Sadr stormed Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone to the second time in a week Saturday to prevent the formation of a new government. They scaled concrete barriers and pushed security forces into Iraq’s parliament, filling empty seats with representatives and shouting their support for Mr. Sadr: “Son of Mohammed, take us wherever you want.”

Their decision effectively prevented members of parliament from meeting to form a government, a step the political parties had tentatively scheduled for Saturday.

The occupation of parliament by Mr. Sadr’s supporters looked dangerously like a government grab, not least because as the day wore on some of his supporters briefly moved into the building that houses the judges’ offices . 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 demand Members of parliament loyal to him resigned after a federal court ruled that two-thirds of parliament must agree on a president and that his coalition could not garner enough votes for a single individual. Mr Sadr thought his rivals would ask him to return, but instead the second largest coalition, which includes Shia groups that had or had armed elements linked to Iran, rushed to fill the slots empty with its own candidates and prepared to form a government.

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

“In Iraq, we used to have differences in an interfaith way – Shia Muslims against Sunnis, Arabs against Kurds – but now we are heading to a more dangerous place which is really intra-Shia, intra- Kurdish, intra – Sunni rivalries,” I say.

“People tolerate arguments with others, but arguments within a sect or an ethnic group are always a fight for the soul of the group itself, to know who speaks on behalf of the group”, a- he added.

Mr. Sadr, who headed 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 implicated in targeted assassinations of American troops as well as the executions of Iraqis seen as ‘traitors’. However, Mr. Sadr later moved away from this approach and learned to round up the millions of Iraqis loyal to him and his clerical family, sending them to the streets when he wanted to exert political pressure. .

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

Mr. Sadr, however, did not accurately judge the most recent political situation. Since he cannot reverse his decision to step down from government and is now an outsider, he has leveraged the option left to him: send his legions of supporters to halt the formation of a new government and demand reforms and new elections that could bring his group power back into government.

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

“That might spark some excitement among Iraqis; they might even get support from the Tishreen movement,” he said, referring to the thousands of protesters from different walks of life who came together in October 2019 to demand that the government address unemployment, reign in corruption, provide electricity and end the rampant rule of armed groups linked to Iran. Their protests have brought downtown Baghdad to a standstill in southern Iraq; more than 500 protesters have been killed by security forces and armed groups, and more than 19,000 have been injured, according to the United Nations.

Among the demands that could constitute a call for mobilization are: amending the constitution to change the Iraqi government from a parliamentary system to a presidential system; appoint an interim government that is responsible for constitutional changes and agrees to hold early elections; and to hold corrupt officials to account, Mr Al-Bayati said.

These claims have been listed by those close to Mr. Sadr in statements or tweets in recent days.

The United Nations Mission in Iraq issued a statement urging political actors on all sides to calm the situation. “The ongoing escalation is deeply concerning,” the statement said. “The voices of reason and wisdom are essential to prevent further violence. All actors are encouraged to defuse in the interest of all Iraqis.

Calls for calm were also made by some of Mr. Sadr’s political opponents, while others seemed more confrontational.

Health Ministry officials said that by mid-afternoon there had been 125 injuries. Tear gas and sound bombs were reportedly used in an attempt to disperse the crowd, but government security forces have so far been largely subdued at the request of Iraqi interim Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi. who coordinated with his security forces. and protesters to avoid clashes and accusations of suppressing free speech.

Some of the roots of this week’s unrest can be traced back to protests in 2019, which raised the profile of many activists but ultimately yielded little to reform. These protests were initially championed primarily by civil society activists and anti-corruption lawyers, who opposed Iran-linked militias in Iraq as well as the government’s failure to provide jobs and corruption. tenacious. They were joined by Mr. Sadr supporters, who also claimed to be strongly opposed to corruption – although analysts say Sadrist-controlled ministries are also plagued by bribes and corruption. other forms of corruption.

While Mr Sadr also has ties to Iran and a number of his close family members live there. He has pushed an Iraqi nationalist agenda that asserts his power and that of Iraq, rather than his loyalty to Iran.

The 2019 protests led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Mehdi and the choice of Mr Kadhimi to replace him until a snap election is held.

These elections, however, did not result in a consensus on a new political direction for the country or on reforms. Today, there is no figure, whether Shia, Sunni or Kurd, capable of touching Iraq’s disparate religious, ethnic and political identities to meet the demands of the people, Kadhim said.

Adding to the precariousness of the situation is the scorching summer heat in Iraq, he said. “Any time you have a mass of people on the streets, the risk of violence is 70%,” 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.