World and regional powers have expressed their concerns about the political escalation in Iraq after the occupation of the parliament building by followers of Shiite 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 followers to push for a complete overhaul of the political system, including a new constitution, and to rise up to expel the country's elites whom he condemned as corrupt.
The brinkmanship has rattled his political opponents, some of whom command well-armed militia groups linked to Iran. This has led to fears of renewed civil war, since Mr Al Sadr also commands large numbers of armed supporters.
For the second time in less than a week on Saturday, Mr Al Sadr ordered thousands of his followers into the heavily fortified government complex. Despite security forces using tear gas and water cannon, the crowds tore down concrete blast walls surrounding the site.
Once inside the sprawling complex known as the Green Zone, home to key government buildings including the Cabinet office, Parliament, foreign embassies and residences of senior politicians, they announced an open-ended sit-in.
At least 125 people, 100 protesters and 25 security personnel, were wounded, according to the Health Ministry.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he “is following with concern the ongoing protests in Iraq”, calling for restraint.
In a statement, he said that “freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental rights that must be respected at all times”.
He appealed to “all relevant actors to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation, avoid any further violence, and ensure the protection of peaceful protesters and state institutions”.
He called for a “peaceful and inclusive dialogue” to form “an effective national government that will be able to deliver on long-standing demands for reform, without further delay”.
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Secretary General of the Arab League, also appealed to all Iraqi political forces to work quickly to stop the escalation and start a sincere political dialogue.
Mr Aboul Gheit said that “getting things out of control will not be in the interest of Iraq or in the interest of any party”.
Others echoed those concerns.
The EU delegation to Iraq called on all parties to “exercise restraint to prevent further violence” and urged the rivals to “solve issues through a constructive political dialogue within the constitutional framework”.
Dr Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE President, said “Iraq’s stability means stability to the region and a boost to its security.”
“We are looking forward to a prosperous and stable Iraq capable of solving its internal issues through dialogue and consensus in order to retain its vital role at the Arab and regional levels,” Mr Gargash said.
Emerging as a clear winner in October's national election with 73 seats in the 329-seat parliament, Mr Al Sadr sought to form a majority government with Sunni and Kurdish allies, sidelining his Iran-backed rivals, the Co-ordination Framework.
But the CF — an umbrella group that consists of Tehran-allied militias and political parties — along with some smaller parties not directly aligned to Tehran derailed Mr Al Sadr’s efforts.
A series of legal challenges and parliament session boycotts to block candidates put forward by Mr Al Sadr's allies for the role of president, a vital step in government formation, combined with alleged intimidation tactics, forced him to order his MPs to resign last month.
That has given the CF the lead to form the government. In the past week, Mr Al Sadr voiced a series of objections when the CF nominated Shiite politician Mohammed Shia Al Sudani for the role of prime minister.
He has called Mr Al Sudani a “shadow” of his rival, former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, one of the senior CF leaders.
The years-long antagonism between the two men has been one of the reasons behind the delay in forming a new government, more than 10 months since national elections were held.
As the CF pushed to hold a parliament session on Thursday to choose a new president — who in turn has to give the largest political bloc the task of nominating a prime minister — Mr Al Sadr's followers briefly occupied parliament.
Mr Al Sadr said the move was a “warning”.
As the parliament planned to hold a session on Saturday, the Sadrists once again entered, prompting the speaker to suspend all sessions until further notice.
In his tweet on Sunday, Mr Al Sadr praised what he called a “spontaneous and peaceful revolution that liberated the Green Zone", describing it a “golden opportunity” for change.
“This is a great opportunity to fundamentally change the political system and the constitution,” he said, urging Iraqis not to miss it to "eliminate the darkness, corruption, exclusivity in power, loyalty to the outside, [sectarian-based] quotas, and sectarianism that have perched upon Iraq”.
The quickly unfolding events have raised the stakes and intensified the struggle for influence between Mr Al Sadr and his Iran-backed rivals.
“The coming period will be a one of escalation,” Hadi Jalo, chairman of the Political Decision think tank in Baghdad, told The National.
“Al Sadr’s message is, 'I also can hamper your efforts to form the government,'” Mr Jalo said. “The Sadrist movement is now fighting back and has succeeded in putting everything on hold now.”
Saturday’s move took Mr Al Sadr’s rivals by surprise, showing division among its leaders.
Mr Al Maliki and Qais Al Khazaali, who commands the militia Asaib Ahl Al Haq — both prominent rivals to Mr Al Sadr — insisted on issuing a statement that called for counter-protests.
But senior leaders Hadi Al Amiri, Haider Al Abadi and Ammar Al Hakim issued more conciliatory statements, refusing escalation and calling for dialogue.
Hours later, the CF called off the protests.
Mr Al Sadr has not responded to their calls for dialogue and instead ordered his supporters to continue their sit-in inside the parliament.
This has raised questions as to what Mr Al Sadr's aim may be.
“Since it’s hard to go back to parliament, Mr Al Sadr may now aim at dissolving the legislative body, keeping the caretaker government and holding early elections,” Mr Jalo said.
Few hours after Mr Al Sadr's statement, the CF called for a peaceful demonstration outside the Green Zone on Monday afternoon.