Iraq’s top judicial body says it does not have the authority to dissolve the country’s parliament, days after influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr escalated a political standoff by giving it one week to dismiss the legislature so new elections can be held.
The decision is likely to increase tensions between Iran-backed groups in the Coordination Framework and al-Sadr’s followers, who repeatedly stormed the parliament and suspended a session to nominate a new prime minister.
“The Supreme Judicial Council does not have the authority to dissolve parliament,” it said in a statement, adding it cannot “interfere in the work of the legislative or executive authorities”.
Al-Sadr, whose political bloc won the largest number of seats in parliament in October but failed to form a majority government that excluded his Iran-aligned rivals, tweeted on Wednesday that the judiciary had one week to dissolve the legislature.
He called on his followers Saturday night to be ready to hold massive protests all over Iraq, raising concerns over new tensions, but did not set a date for the demonstrations.
Iraq is now in its 10th month of political impasse, the longest in the country since the 2003 United States-led invasion reset the political order. The road map ahead is unclear as parliament has exceeded the constitutional timeline for forming a new government following the vote.
In its statement, the Supreme Judicial Council said it agreed with al-Sadr’s criticism of the system’s “failure to elect a president of the republic, a prime minister and the absence of a government formed within the constitutional timeframe”.
“This is an unacceptable situation that must be remedied,” it said.
On July 30, thousands of al-Sadr’s followers stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone – which houses Iraq’s government buildings and foreign embassies – for the second time in a week. They have since held a sit-in outside parliament.
All sessions of the assembly were cancelled until further notice, effectively halting efforts by the Coordination Framework to try and form the next government after al-Sadr failed to do so.
Al-Sadr’s followers stopped short of overrunning the Supreme Judicial Council building next door, in an act many would consider a coup.
On Friday, supporters of the Coordination Framework launched their own Baghdad sit-in to protest the occupation of the legislature by al-Sadr’s supporters.
On Twitter, a close associate of Sadr, Saleh Mohamed al-Iraqi, said it was time to show “which of the two sides has the most support” among the Iraqi people.
He called on al-Sadr’s supporters across the country to rally in Baghdad for a “million-man demonstration”, without giving a date.
Even if the Shia rivals were to agree to hold elections, fundamental differences remain about electoral rules.
Al-Sadr wants to use the same rules as in the October election, when Iraq was divided into 83 electoral districts. The cleric’s bloc emerged from the vote as parliament’s biggest, but still far short of a majority.
The current law benefits parties with a strong grassroots base like that of al-Sadr, who grew his seat tally from 54 to 73, while the Iran-backed parties saw a decrease from 48 to 16.
The Coordination Framework wants the law to be amended. However, the parliament building is closed as hundreds of al-Sadr’s followers are camped outside, preventing parliamentarians from entering.
The debilitating political gridlock has further weakened the country’s caretaker government and its ability to provide basic services.
Ordinary Iraqis are increasingly frustrated because the caretaker government is struggling to provide basic services such as electricity and water.
Unable to pass a budget law, the government has resorted to stop-gap measures to fund urgent expenses such as food and electricity payments to neighbouring countries, while crucial investments, including in water infrastructure, have been stalled.