Supporters of powerful Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have erected tents and are preparing for a long sit-in at Iraq’s parliament, deepening a months-long political standoff.
On Saturday, supporters of the firebrand al-Sadr forced their way into the legislative chamber for the second time in days, after October elections failed to lead to the formation of a government.
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“The demonstrators announce a sit-in until further notice,” al-Sadr’s movement said in a brief statement to journalists carried by state news agency INA.
Nearly 10 months after October elections, Iraq is still without a new government despite intense negotiations between factions.
Government formation in the oil-rich country has involved complex negotiations since the 2003 invasion led by the United States toppled Saddam Hussein.
Supporters of al-Sadr, who once led a militia against the US and Iraqi government forces, oppose a rival, pro-Iran Shia bloc’s pick for prime minister – Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.
The post conventionally goes to a figure from Iraq’s Shia majority.
“We don’t want Mr al-Sudani,” said one protester, Sattar al-Aliawi, a 47-year-old civil servant.
He told AFP news agency he was protesting against “a corrupt and incapable government” and would “sleep here” in the gardens of parliament.
“The people totally refuse the parties that have governed the country for 18 years,” he said.
On Sunday morning, the demonstrators marked the Muslim month of Muharram with religious chants and collective meals.
“We were hoping for the best but we got the worst. The politicians currently in parliament have brought us nothing,” Abdelwahab al-Jaafari, 45, told AFP.
Volunteers distributed soup, hard-boiled eggs, bread and water to the protesters.
Some spent the night inside the parliament with blankets spread out on the marble floors. Others took to the gardens, on plastic mats under palm trees.
Al-Sadr’s bloc emerged from elections in October as the biggest parliamentary faction, but was still far short of a majority, causing the longest political vacuum in the country since 2003.
In June, al-Sadr’s 73 legislators quit their seats in a move seen as an attempt to pressure his rivals into fast-tracking the formation of a government.
That led to a pro-Iran bloc, the Coordination Framework, becoming the largest in parliament, but still there was no agreement on naming a new prime minister, president or cabinet.
Saturday’s demonstration came three days after crowds of al-Sadr supporters breached the Green Zone and entered the legislature on Wednesday.
Reporting from inside the parliament on Sunday, Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed said the protesters have pledged not to leave the headquarters until their demands are met.
“These protesters have been sleeping, praying, chanting against the Coordination Framework and chanting against [former prime minister] Nouri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of corruption and mismanagement. They say al-Sudani is a replica of al-Maliki,” he said.
“Despite calls for calm from local and international institutions, these protesters seem to be determined to continue their sit-in until their demands are met.”
Ahmed Rushdi, president of the House of Iraqi Expertise Foundation, told Al Jazeera the protesters have three factors to reach their “end game”: keeping Mustafa al-Kadhimi as a prime minister, keeping the electoral committee and keeping the elections law.
“The three angles of the triangle are very important to get more than 100 seats in the next elections, which Sadrists said can be happening in about three to six months,” Rushdi said.
“It shows how anxious they are to reach the early elections with the powerful tools – prime minister, committee and law of elections.”
The deadlock marks Iraq’s biggest crisis in years. In 2017, Iraqi forces, together with a US-led coalition and Iranian military support, defeated the ISIL (ISIS) group that had taken over a third of Iraq.
Two years later, Iraqis suffering from a lack of jobs and services took to the streets demanding an end to corruption, new elections and the removal of all parties – especially the powerful Shia groups – that have run the country since 2003.
Al-Sadr continues to ride the wave of popular opposition to his Iran-backed rivals, saying they are corrupt and serve the interests of Tehran, not Baghdad.