Rival Shiite groups clash over leadership vacuum in Iraq | Politics News

Rival Iraqi factions have taken to the streets of Baghdad to call for a new government, with supporters of religious scholar Moqtada al-Sadr demanding a snap election and his Iran-backed opponents saying the results of last October’s poll should be honoured.

Thousands of al-Sadr supporters prayed outside parliament on Friday in a show of support for the populist leader who has called on the judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of next week.

Hours later, supporters of Iran-backed groups opposed to al-Sadr gathered at the edge of the fortified Green Zone, where parliament and foreign embassies are located, insisting they should form the new government based on the October elections.

Supporters of al-Sadr stormed parliament last month and have since staged a sit-in outside the assembly building in the Iraqi capital.

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

Al-Sadr has also been a harsh critic of the widespread corruption in the oil-rich country torn apart by decades of US-led war and ensuing violence, with crumbling infrastructure, an impoverished majority and a lack of of basic services.

Al-Sadr, whose side won the most votes in last October’s legislative elections, was unable to form a majority government and after eight months of stalemate and maneuvering with rival factions, he abandoned these attempts.

Members of al-Sadr’s parliamentary bloc resigned but instead of allowing his rivals – the coordinating cadre – to try to form a government, al-Sadr demanded the dissolution of parliament and the holding of snap elections . It is unclear whether he has a legal basis for these claims.

“Occupy of Parliament”

Friday’s protest and counter-protest were the latest in a string of protests that have raised fears of unrest if the political stalemate continues.

Religious and political leaders command the loyalty of large numbers of people, and militias operate independently of the central government. The standoff, now in its 10th month, is the longest in the country since the 2003 US-led invasion wreaked havoc on the political order.

“We are protesting against the occupation of parliament and those who threaten the justice system,” said university student Abbas Salem who was part of Friday’s rally of Iran-backed groups.

Salem carried a poster of a senior Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, and a senior Iraqi Shiite militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in a US drone raid in January 2020. He has said he was worried if al-Sadr forms a government he will disband the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella of mainly Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

Another protester, Ahmad al-Maliki, 52, said he opposed the ‘occupation of parliament’ by al-Sadr supporters and added that Iraq needed a new government as soon as possible.

“No Looking Back”

Meanwhile, al-Sadr’s supporters in Baghdad and most of Iraq’s Shia-dominated provinces – with the exception of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala – held their own rallies and performed Friday prayers in the open. air in a show of force.

In Baghdad, most were dressed in black to mark the Muslim month of Muharram and some wore white capes symbolizing shrouds and their willingness to die for their cause.

“You won’t break Iraq as long as Sadr is here,” an imam told the crowd from a big red stage set up in front of parliament. “There is no turning back after this revolution…and the people will not give up their demands.”

In the intense summer heat, the men pushed their way among the worshipers and doused them with cold water. Some carried portraits of al-Sadr and his father, also a prominent Muslim scholar, as well as Iraqi flags.

Al-Sadr counts millions of Iraqis among his supporters and has shown he can still stir up rallies of hundreds of thousands of supporters, mostly working-class Shia Muslims, if he needs to exert political pressure .

Hamid Hussain, a father of five, said: “I am here to call for snap elections and make sure that all corrupt faces are excluded from the next elections… I found myself unemployed because of corrupt parties.

As night fell, protesters supporting pro-Iranian groups began setting up tents to begin an indefinite sit-in until their demands were met.

“Today we are going to stage a sit-in…The people cannot handle another election…we are tired,” said Mohamed Yasin, 35, a day laborer.

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