Rival demonstrations by competing Shia Muslim groups affiliated with heavily armed militias brought thousands to the streets of Iraq’s capital as tension soars over the failure to form a government after months of deadlock.
Iraqi security forces were on high alert in Baghdad on Monday. Iraq’s longest post-election deadlock, at nearly 10 months with no government after an October vote, has led to unrest including protests by supporters of the powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are occupying parliament in an open-ended sit-in.
Al-Sadr’s opponents include a grouping of parties and militias mostly aligned with Iran, known as the Shia Coordination Framework, that called for counter-protests near parliament, saying they were aimed at protecting state institutions against the civil unrest of the Sadrists.
The Iraqi parliament sits in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone – also home to government buildings and embassies – which al-Sadr supporters stormed with ease twice last week as security forces stood back.
The Coordination Framework’s demonstrations took place near the Green Zone’s entrance.
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from inside the Green Zone, said pro-al-Sadr demonstrators are “very much keeping their momentum”.
“They say they’re here to stay as long as they’re needed,” Jabbari said. “They say they want a complete overhaul of the system, a new constitution.”
Protesters chanted, “No one can beat the Sayed” – referring to Muqtada al-Sadr.
All Iraqis should support these demonstrators and come out in Baghdad, al-Sadr said on Twitter on Sunday.
“But the latest we hear from his media office is people should stay in their provinces until further notice,” Jabbari reported.
Supporters of the counter-protests are “not directed against any particular group”, they said on social media.
A commander of a pro-Iran militia said he feared clashes and hoped calm heads would prevail.
“The situation in Iraq is very tough. We hope God will deliver us from fighting among the brothers. If things devolve, it will ruin the whole region,” the commander said, declining to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Clashes at counter-protest
The Coordination Framework includes lawmakers from the party of al-Sadr’s longtime foe, ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It also represents the powerful pro-Iran former paramilitary alliance Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), now integrated into the regular forces.
Hadi al-Ameri, who heads a faction of the PMF, repeated a call on Monday for “constructive dialogue enabling solutions to be found to points of contention”.
He warned against “an atmosphere of media escalation, sparked by statements and counter-statements calling for mass mobilisations that could get out of control and lead to violence”.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from the counterprotest, said thousands of supporters of the pro-Iranian parliamentary bloc had gathered.
“They say they’ve come from several provinces … but they say they do not know for certain whether or not they will remain here in an open sit-in as their adversaries are doing in parliament,” he said.
Abdelwahed said clashes took place earlier between protesters and security forces, which later withdrew from the area and moved closer to the Green Zone.
Demonstrators shouted slogans “against their adversaries” and called Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi “a collaborator” with supporters of al-Sadr.
Some protesters waved banners calling for the downfall of al-Kadhimi – who remains as caretaker until a new government is formed. They later dispersed after the leader of one Iran-backed faction, Qais al-Khazali, thanked them for participating and asked them to go home.
Sadr’s supporters remained in parliament.
“We’re ready for whatever Sadr orders,” said Kadhim Haitham, on his way to join the parliament sit-in. “We’re against the Framework. All they’ve got is statements and no popular support.”
Meanwhile, an al-Sadr loyalist urged supporters of the cleric to protest across Iraq’s provinces.
Al-Sadr came first in voting in the October election but withdrew all his lawmakers from parliament after he failed to form a government that excluded his Shia rivals.
He has since exerted political pressure through his masses of loyal followers, mostly working-class people from poor neighbourhoods in Baghdad and across southern Iraq, the heartland of the country’s Shia majority.
Al-Sadr’s actions have prevented his rivals, including al-Maliki, from forming a government. Parliament must choose a president and prime minister and cannot convene while it is occupied by al-Sadr’s followers.
The Sadrists have called for new elections and an end to the political system that has existed since the 2003 United States-led invasion that toppled longtime Sunni leader Saddam Hussein.
That system distributes power by sect and party, and is blamed by many Iraqis for the endemic corruption and dysfunction that has prevented any meaningful progress for years, despite Baghdad’s oil wealth and relative peace after the defeat of the ISIL armed group in 2017.
Al-Sadr is one of the chief beneficiaries of that system. His loyalists run some of Iraq’s wealthiest and worst-managed ministries.
If the situation escalates, it would be the closest that al-Sadr and al-Maliki’s followers have come to a confrontation since 2008, when Iraqi troops during al-Maliki’s administration drove out al-Sadr’s then-militia, the Mahdi Army, out of the southern city of Basra.
Al-Sadr and al-Maliki, powerful in their own right, have been bitter enemies ever since.