The UN mission to Iraq on Wednesday called for national dialogue between the country’s political rivals to find a solution to the stalemate over the formation of a new government.
Political infighting has been wreaking havoc in Iraq since the October national elections — the fifth since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
The conflict reached worrying levels last week, when followers of the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr breached the heavily fortified Green Zone, occupied the parliament building and staged an open-ended sit-in.
Following his inability to form a new government after becoming the clear winner in the elections — with 73 seats in the 329-seat legislative body — Mr Al Sadr ordered his MPs to resign in June.
He blamed his rivals, the Iran-backed Co-ordination Framework, for hindering his efforts to form a government through lawsuits and parliamentary session boycotts.
After Mr Al Sadr's supporters stormed parliament, tension escalated further on Monday when the Co-ordination Framework launched counter-protests outside the Green Zone, accusing the Shiite leader of staging a “coup” for demanding an overhaul to the political system and changes to the constitution.
The Green Zone is home to key government buildings including the Cabinet and the parliament as well as foreign embassies and senior politicians' residencies.
“Meaningful dialogue among all Iraqi parties is now more urgent than ever, as recent events have demonstrated the rapid risk of escalation in this tense political climate,” the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (Unami) said in a statement.
It chastised political parties for not observing the “democratic basics such as constitutional compliance and respect for state institutions”.
“Their failure to move forward has had a clear adverse effect on public trust,” it added.
Unami stressed that the need to find solutions through an all-inclusive dialogue “is evident” and said that without it, “the state of Iraq will continue to be dominated by competing interests, leading to further instability, with the people paying the price”.
“Such a scenario is simply intolerable,” it said.
“Iraqis do not need continued power struggles or stand-offs. They need solutions, and a commitment to implementing them, to draw their country out of its political crisis.”
'He is the only one with integrity'
Mr Al Sadr has yet to respond publicly to calls for dialogue with his rivals. His aides told the protesters that their demands should be met before any dialogue begins.
Meanwhile, thousands of protesters continued their sit-in for the fifth consecutive day.
The at times carnival-like protests have included demonstrators chanting Sadrist rhetoric but also expressing anger over the dysfunctional political system, poor public services and weak economy in the oil-rich, corruption-plagued country.
Ali Mohammed Oklah, 43, left behind his wife and three children to make the four-hour drive from Iraq's mostly Shiite south to the usually ultra-secure Green Zone.
“I'm rebelling to free my country from the fangs of the corrupt,” the Islamic studies high schoolteacher told AFP. He also wants Iraq to adopt a new constitution and update the presidential system.
Leaning back in a chair inside the legislative chamber, Umm Ali, 47, said she has come to demonstrate alongside her husband, brothers and nephews.
She vowed they would stay “until the Sayyed tells us to withdraw”, using the honorary title for Mr Al Sadr, whose black turban marks him as a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.
A portrait of Mr Al Sadr sat in the lap of the mother of seven.
“He is the only one with integrity,” said the woman, who lives in Baghdad's working-class Sadr City district, named after the preacher's late father, also a revered cleric.