Iraqi Moqtada Al Sadr tells supporters to push for ‘radical change’

World and regional powers have expressed concern over the political escalation in Iraq after the seizure of the parliament building by the mercurial supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, pushing a months-long struggle to form the next government into uncharted territory.

On Sunday evening, Mr Al Sadr called on his supporters to push for a complete overhaul of the political system, including a new constitution, rising up to kick out the country’s elites whom he condemned as corrupt.

The tight-rope policy has rattled his political opponents, some of whom command well-armed militias linked to Iran. This raised fears of a resumption of civil war, since Mr. Al Sadr also commands a large number of armed partisans.

For the second time in less than a week, Mr Al Sadr flexed his muscles, ordering thousands of his supporters back to the heavily fortified government compound on Saturday. Although security forces used tear gas and water cannons, the crowd demolished concrete blast walls protecting the site.

Once inside the sprawling complex known as the Green Zone – home to major government buildings including the cabinet office, parliament, foreign embassies and residences of senior politicians, they announced a sit- indefinitely.

At least 125 people – 100 protesters and 25 security personnel – were injured, according to the health ministry.

Mr. Al Sadr, who relays his messages and instructions to protesters through social media assistants, has yet to clearly voice his demands or respond to calls for dialogue.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “following the ongoing protests in Iraq with concern”, urging restraint.

In a statement, Mr Guterres said that “freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental rights which must be respected at all times”.

He called on “all relevant actors to take immediate action to de-escalate the situation, prevent further violence and ensure the protection of peaceful protesters and state institutions”.

He called for “peaceful and inclusive dialogue” to form “an effective national government that will be able to respond to longstanding demands for reform, without further delay.”

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit also called on all Iraqi political forces to work quickly to stop the escalation and start a sincere political dialogue.

Mr Aboul Gheit warned that “getting things out of control will not be in Iraq’s interest or in the interest of any party”.

Others echoed the same concerns.

The EU delegation to Iraq called on all parties to “show restraint to prevent further violence” and urged rivals to “resolve issues through constructive political dialogue within the constitutional framework”.

The diplomatic adviser to the President of the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Anwar Gargash, declared that “the stability of Iraq means the stability of the region and a strengthening of its security”.

“We look forward to a prosperous and stable Iraq capable of resolving its internal problems through dialogue and consensus in order to retain its vital role at the Arab and regional levels,” Gargash added.

‘Defending’

Emerging as a clear winner in October’s national elections with 73 seats in a 329-seat parliament, Al Sadr sought to form a majority government with Sunni and Kurdish allies, sidelining his Iran-backed rivals, the Coordination Framework .

But the CF – an umbrella group made up of militias and influential political parties allied with Tehran – along with a few smaller parties not directly aligned with Tehran have derailed Al Sadr’s efforts through various means.

A series of legal challenges and boycotts of parliamentary sessions to block candidates put forward by Mr Al Sadr’s allies for president, a vital step in forming the government, combined with alleged intimidation tactics, have forced to order its MPs to resign last month.

This gave the CF the initiative to form the government. Last week, Al Sadr voiced a series of angry objections when the CF appointed Shiite politician Mohammed Shia Al Sudani as Prime Minister.

He called Mr. Al Sudani a “shadow” of his rival, former Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, one of the top leaders of the CF. The years-long antagonism between the two men was one of the reasons for the delay in forming a new government, more than 10 months since national elections were held.

As the CF pushed to hold a parliamentary session on Thursday to choose a new president – who in turn must task the largest political bloc with appointing a prime minister, Al Sadr’s supporters briefly occupied parliament. Mr Al Sadr said the move was a “warning”.

As parliament planned to hold a session on Saturday, the Sadrists entered again, prompting the speaker of parliament to suspend all sessions until further notice.

The rapidly unfolding events have raised the stakes and deepened the struggle for influence between Mr Al Sadr and his Iranian-backed rivals.

“The coming period will be one of escalation,” said Hadi Jalo, chairman of the Policy Decision Think Tank in Baghdad. The National.

“Al Sadr’s message is: ‘I can also hinder your efforts to form the government,'” Mr Jalo said. “The Sadrist movement is now fighting back and has managed to put everything on hold,” he added.

Saturday’s decision took Mr Al Sadr’s rivals by surprise, showing the division between his leaders.

Mr Al Maliki and Qais Al Khazaali, who command the Asaib Ahl Al Haq militia – two prominent rivals of Mr Al Sadr, insisted on issuing a statement calling for counter-protests, two lawmakers said.

But other senior leaders – Hadi Al Amiri, Haider Al Abadi and Ammar Al Hakim, issued more conciliatory statements, refusing escalation and calling for dialogue. Hours later, CF called off the protests.

Mr. Al Sadr did not respond to their calls for dialogue and instead ordered his supporters to continue their sit-in inside parliament.

This raised questions as to Mr. Al Sadr’s ultimate goal.

“Since it is difficult to return to parliament, Mr. Al Sadr can now aim to dissolve the legislative body, maintain the interim government and hold early elections,” Mr. Jalo said.

Updated: July 31, 2022, 3:58 p.m.

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