Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have participated in a mass prayer in Baghdad called for by influential Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, a highly symbolic move amid an unprecedented political crisis roiling Iraq.
In a show of strength, al-Sadr had called on his followers to pray on Friday inside Baghdad’s Green Zone – a heavily fortified area in the heart of the capital city that houses government buildings, foreign embassies and Iraq’s parliament, which his supporters have occupied since Saturday.
Al-Sadr’s supporters converged on a vast square inside the normally secure Green Zone where they stood in the scorching summer heat as temperatures reached 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit).
The mass prayer appeal followed his demand for early elections, which Iraq’s rival political bloc – the pro-Iran Coordination Framework -says it is conditionally open to despite the last national polls only taking place about 10 months ago.
Iraq’s political factions have not been able to form a government, even as the country grapples with rampant corruption, crumbling infrastructure and unemployment.
Al-Sadr’s followers stormed the parliament building in Baghdad last Saturday at his command to prevent the Coordination Framework from voting in a new government.
A similar prayer call and pressure tactic from al-Sadr in mid-July drew hundreds of thousands of Muslim worshippers to Sadr City, a Baghdad district named after his assassinated father.
Reporting from Baghdad, Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed said that while some of the protesters at the parliament building were returning to their home cities, others have been joining the sit-in.
“The [Friday sermon] preacher confirmed that these protesters will continue their sit-in until their demands are met. They want to remove all corrupt politicians,” Abdelwahed said.
“It seems as though the protesters are planning for a long-term sit-in until they receive different instructions from their leader,” he added.
Risk of escalation
Months of post-election negotiations between al-Sadr’s bloc – the largest in parliament – and other factions failed to lead to an agreement on a new government, prime minister and president.
Though al-Sadr’s bloc emerged from the October polls as parliament’s biggest, it was still far short of forming a majority.
In June, his 73 politicians quit in a bid to break the logjam. That led to the rival Coordination Framework bloc becoming the largest in the legislature.
The Coordination Framework’s recent nomination of former cabinet minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as prime minister angered the Sadrists and triggered their continuing occupation of the parliament building.
With armed groups linked to various political factions in Iraq, the United Nations has warned of the risk of political tensions escalating.
On Wednesday, al-Sadr called for the dissolution of parliament and for new polls to be held.
His adversaries in the Coordination Framework on Thursday night said they were conditionally open to that idea, signalling a potential de-escalation.
In a brief statement, the Coordination Framework said it “affirms its support to any constitutional way to resolve the political crises and realise the interests of the people, including early elections”.
But “a national consensus on the question and providing a safe environment” were prerequisites for such polls, the group said.
Above all, the Framework stressed the importance of “not disrupting the functioning” of constitutional institutions – a clear reference to the current occupation of parliament by Sadrists.
The Coordination Framework includes politicians from the party of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a longtime foe of al-Sadr, and the Hashd al-Shaabi, a pro-Iran ex-paramilitary network now integrated into the security forces.
Parliament can only be dissolved by a majority vote, according to the constitution. Such a vote can take place at the request of a third of legislators, or by the prime minister with the president’s agreement.