Tension was high in Baghdad on Monday evening, as Iraq’s main parliamentary bloc organised a protest near parliament, vowing to confront supporters of influential cleric Moqtada Al Sadr who have occupied the building.
Protesters in support of Iran-linked parties — a coalition known as the Co-ordination Framework — scuffled with police near parliament, being hosed with water cannon as they tried to scale concrete security barriers.
The Green Zone is home to parliament, homes of the political elite and foreign embassies.
The counter-protest aims to confront Mr Al Sadr's supporters, now engaged in a sit-in protest inside parliament, and caretaker prime minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who they accuse of following a US-led agenda.
Hundreds of Co-ordination Framework supporters, mainly members of Iran-backed militia groups, gathered outside one of the Green Zone gates at Baghdad's upmarket Jadiriya neighbourhood, home to headquarters of influential Iran-backed militias.
Some waved flags of militia group Asaib Ahl Al Haq.
“Yes, yes, for Al Maliki,” a group of protesters in black clothing shouted in support of former prime minister and prominent Co-ordination Framework figure Nouri Al Maliki. “Yes, yes, to the state of law,” they chanted.
Scuffles broke out with riot police guarding the blocked entrance to the 14th of July bridge, which leads to the Green Zone.
When police began to fire jets of hot water, protesters started throwing stones. Some police managed to calm the demonstrators and convince them to withdraw.
The Co-ordination Framework says it cannot allow Mr Al Sadr to block MPs from entering parliament to try to form a new government.
The Iraqi army, which is relatively neutral and caught between the Sadrists and the Iran-linked groups and their powerful militias, has been sent in to try to stop the violence.
Mr Al Sadr wants to change the system for selecting a new prime minister and has called for a revision of the constitution, adopted two years after the US-led invasion in 2003.
But there were signs on Monday evening that the Co-ordination Framework wanted to avoid bloodshed, although it is fragmented and lacks centralised leadership.
The leader of the influential Asaib Ahl Al Haq militia, Qais Al Khazali, called for peaceful demonstrations and asked his supporters to leave the area on Monday evening.
“You are out for the sake of Iraq so your slogans must be only for Iraq and not to attack anyone,” Mr Al Khazali said in a statement.
“Don't allow anyone to attack the security forces and don't advance one inch inside the Green Zone.”
Tension ebbed at the protest site on Monday night as Co-ordination Framework supporters began to withdraw.
The group said on Sunday that the Sadrists’ protests could be setting the stage for a coup to block a legitimate effort to choose the next prime minister.
“Changing the constitution should be carried out by legal and constitutional tools,” the bloc said. “We urge the Sadrists to take part in a constructive dialogue.”
It urged supporters to take to the streets and protest outside the Green Zone in a show of strength to match the actions of Mr Al Sadr's followers.
“We did this to protect the legitimacy of the state, its institutions and the people when [ISIS] swept through most of Iraq in 2014 and now we are doing the same,” Mohammed Khalad, 43, told The National, while holding the Popular Mobilisation Forces flag.
“We will not allow to anyone to stir up chaos and we will overthrow any coup,” Mr Khalid added, echoing accusations levelled by Co-ordination Framework leaders against Mr Al Sadr.
Ali Al Nasrawi, 40, said the Co-ordination Framework “is protecting Iraq from sliding into chaos and also protecting the [group's] legitimate right to form the new government”.
As the protest continued, thousands of Mr Al Sadr’s supporters took to the streets in other provinces, mainly in the south of the country, to voice support for their leader.
The Sadrists are not only protesting against the Co-ordination Framework’s candidate to lead a new government.
They said the country's election procedures, which require a two-thirds majority to endorse a prime minister, were not fit for purpose.
The Sadrists had the largest bloc in parliament until it resigned en masse last month.
Mr Al Sadr, who became a kingmaker in several elections held after Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 2003, withdrew his MPs from the political process last month despite his bloc winning the most seats.
He said that he did not want to co-operate with corrupt politicians.
His followers have issued instructions for the protesters as they observe their sit-in, including a possible congregational Friday prayer inside the Green Zone and a ban on women taking part in the protests.
Late on Monday, Mr Al Kadhimi warned that Iraq "is witnessing a large-scale political tension renewed that could lead, if wise people will not to intervene, to grave consequences".
He called for "calm and de-escalation to start an initiative to reach a solution". He renewed his call for protesters to withdraw from all government buildings.
'Wherever you want'
In a sign of escalation, supporters of both sides have implicitly and explicitly threatened to attack the houses of prominent politicians.
Social media footage posted on Saturday showed followers of Mr Al Sadr marching towards the mansion of Mr Al Maliki.
“We are obeying you, son of Mohammad [a reference to Mr Al Sadr’s middle name]. We will go wherever you want,” his supporters chanted.
“Yesterday, [Mr Al Maliki] was threatening — today we are in his house,” they said, referring to audio recordings that resurfaced in recent days purported to be of the former prime minister threatening to form Shiite militias to counter Mr Al Sadr.
Mr Al Maliki has dismissed the recordings as fake.
He visited the Green Zone during the first wave of protests on Wednesday, flanked by armed bodyguards, and was seen carrying a firearm in social media photographs confirmed as genuine by allies.
Supporters of both sides have so far avoided violent clashes, but the pace of the escalating political crisis is a major cause for concern.
Supporters of the Co-ordination Framework also protested on Monday outside the residence of caretaker prime minister Mr Al Kadhimi, accusing him of “sitting idle” as Sadrist protesters brought down blast walls, breached security measures and stormed parliament twice in only a few days.
Mr Al Kadhimi said last week his government would remain neutral in the stand-off.
On Sunday, he ordered security forces not to use live ammunition, rubber bullets or tear gas canisters against the protesters.
He urged the protesters to stay peaceful and display restraint.
Iraq's Health Ministry said at least 125 people, including police and demonstrators, were injured on Saturday.
Mr Al Sadr tweeted on Sunday that the process could be a turning point in Iraq’s politics.
“This is a revolution. It’s an opportunity to introduce radical changes,” he said.