Moqtada Al Sadr’s followers stay put as Baghdad protests approach third week

Sadrist sit-in outside parliament is latest chapter in country's 10-month political deadlock over forming new government

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Followers of the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr dug in their heels on Thursday as they wrapped up their second week of protesting outside parliament, saying they are preparing for the worst.

The open-ended sit-in, which began last month after protesters stormed and occupied the heavily fortified parliament building, is the latest chapter in Iraq’s 10-month political deadlock over forming the new government.

Mr Al Sadr’s original goal had been to block a rival Shiite bloc from taking the nomination for prime minister, but a few days later, his demands shifted to focus on the overhaul of the political system in place since the 2003 US-led invasion, changing the constitution and holding early elections.

“The only solution is to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections,” Mohammed Jassim Saad, 60, told The National, sitting in the shade next to a picture of Mr Al Sadr and an Iraqi flag.

“For us, this path is non-negotiable then will come the punishment of the corrupt on all what they have done to the country.”

In a new escalation, Mr Al Sadr on Wednesday demanded the country's judiciary dissolve parliament by the end of next week and set a date for early elections or face unspecific consequences.

The country’s constitution requires a vote passed by an absolute majority to dissolve parliament and that vote can only be requested by a third of lawmakers, or by the prime minister with the president's approval.

But Mr Al Sadr justified his calls for judicial action by noting that constitutional deadlines for appointing a new president and prime minister have been missed following last year's legislative elections.

He asked his supporters to file lawsuits over the issue with the Supreme Federal Court.

The worst is yet to come and a confrontation could happen at any moment.
Murtadha Riyadh

On Thursday, thousands of documents from a previously prepared lawsuit were handed out to protesters to be signed.

One of the copies reached Mr Saad, a father of 11 who wore a black dishdasha and a long white beard. He has been protesting since last month after travelling from Mr Al Sadr's stronghold in Sadr City, Baghdad.

“I agree that the constitution sets the path for this move, but since no one respects the deadlines mentioned in it in the government formation process, then there is a breach and there should be a correction path,” he said before signing the document.

Alarmed by their rival's latest move, the Iran-backed Co-ordination Framework called on supporters to stage protests outside the Green Zone on Friday afternoon to demand the resumption of legislative sessions and the formation of a government.

In return, Mr Al Sadr called for simultaneous counter-protests in other provinces.

The sprawling Green Zone was established after 2003 by US forces to house key government offices, parliament, foreign embassies and the residences of senior politician. The Co-ordination Framework protests are set to be held at the other side the Green Zone.

“The people do not trust them anymore,” Mr Saad said of the Co-ordination Framework. “Only a few hundred or thousands will show up, while us and those who seek reform are in the millions.”

Shortly after taking over the parliament building, which forced the suspension of all sessions indefinitely, Mr Al Sadr faced criticism from inside and outside Iraq. Since then, he has ordered his followers to camp outside the building.

Unarmed members of Mr Al Sadr’s Saraya Al Salam militia are currently guarding the building, preventing anyone from reaching the closed doors.

Meanwhile, a tent city has sprung up in the gardens and pathways surrounding the building. Packs of bottled water and food are stacked in myriad places while air coolers blow cold air into the tents.

Alongside the many posters of Mr Al Sadr and banners praising him and pledging allegiance, new sheets have been glued on the marble walls, asking the protesters to keep following the cleric's statements on Twitter.

Murtadha Riyadh, a protester from the southern province of Babil, says he misses the air-conditioned parliament building.

“We were comfortable inside, the sun is scorching here and humidity is high inside the tent,” Mr Riyadh, 19, told The National after splashing cold water on his face.

With the Co-ordination Framework is standing firm in calling for the end of protests and the resumption of parliamentary sessions, Mr Riyadh says things are not going to come to end soon.

“The issue is not an easy one,” he said. “The worst is yet to come and a confrontation could happen at any moment.” He added that officials are urging them to prepare for this scenario.

Under the sweltering noon heat that hovered around 50°C, cooking pots boil, full of meals for the protesters. Nearby, cows and sheep are tied up.

Ali Al Safi travelled from the southern province of Thi Qar to provide the protesters with food. Every day, he spends about 1.250 million Iraqi Dinar (around $850) cooking three meals that are paid for by wealthier supporters of Mr Al Sadr.

For Thursday's lunch, the 35-year-old volunteer cooked cow meat, rice lightly seasoned with saffron water and aubergine stew.

“We are considering the legal path now,” Mr Al Safi told The National, sweating through his grey dishdasha while supervising the cooking process.

“If nothing happens, then we may escalate and expand the protests to the Cabinet and [the presidential] Al Salam Palace.”

Updated: August 12, 2022, 6:46 AM