BASRA, Iraq – Iraqi protesters loyal to the nationalist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr filled a fortified green zone in Baghdad for the second time in a week on Saturday to thwart the formation of a new government. They climbed over concrete barriers and broke through security forces to enter the Iraqi parliament, filling empty representative seats and shouting their support for Mr. Sadr: “Son of Mohammed, lead us wherever you want.”
Their move effectively made it impossible for MPs to convene to form a government, a move the political parties had tentatively scheduled for Saturday.
The occupation of parliament by Mr. Sadr’s supporters looked dangerous as a power grab, not least because during the day some of his supporters briefly moved into the building that houses the judges’ offices.
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On social media, some Iraqi analysts expressed fear that the mob would target the homes of Mr. Sadr’s political opponents.
Earlier this summer, Mr. Sadr demanded his loyal MPs resign after a federal court ruled that two-thirds of Parliament must agree on a presidential nominee and his coalition could not garner enough votes for either man. Mr. Sadr thought his rivals would ask him to return, but instead the next largest coalition, including Shiite groups that had or had armed elements linked to Iran, rushed to fill the empty seats with their candidates and prepared to form a government.
It is the sectarian nature of the current tension that makes it so dangerous, said Abbas Kadeem, director of the Atlantic Council’s Iraq Initiative.
“We used to have sectarian disputes in Iraq — Shia Muslims vs. Sunnis, Arabs vs. Kurds — but now we’re moving to a more dangerous place that is really intra-Shiite, intra-Kurdish, intra-sectarian. “Sunni rivalry,” he said.
“People tolerate disputes with others, but disputes within a sect or ethnic group are always a struggle for the soul of the group itself, for who speaks on behalf of the group,” he added.
Mr. Sadr, who led the main Shiite opposition to the US occupation of Iraq, supported the creation of an armed wing known as the “Mahdi Army” that was involved in the targeted killings of US military personnel as well as the execution of Iraqis who were perceived as “traitors”. However, Mr. Sadr later abandoned this approach and learned how to mobilize millions of Iraqis loyal to him and his legendary clerical family, sending them into the streets when he wanted to apply political pressure.
Many of his supporters felt like outsiders, and Mr. Sadr stoked those feelings, counting on their passion, loyalty, and large numbers of people to force those in power to comply with his demands, or at least consider them.
However, Mr. Sadr did not quite accurately assess the latest political situation. Since he cannot reverse his decision to leave the government and is now an outsider, he has taken the option left to him: send legions of his supporters to stop the creation of a new government and demand reforms and new elections that could once again bring his group power into government.
“The protesters have made several demands that I consider dangerous,” Iraqi political analyst Sarmad Al-Bayati said in an interview.
“This could cause unrest among Iraqis; they may even get support from the Tishreen movement,” he said, referring to the thousands of protesters from all walks of life who came together in October 2019 to demand that the government tackle unemployment, curb corruption, supply electricity and end the unbridled power of armed groups linked to Iran. Their protests immobilized city centers from Baghdad to southern Iraq; More than 500 protesters were killed by security forces and armed groups, and more than 19,000 were injured, according to the UN.
Among the demands that could be a call for unification are: amending the constitution to change the Iraqi government from a parliamentary to a presidential system; appoint an interim government responsible for constitutional changes and agreeing to hold early elections; and bring corrupt officials to justice, Mr. Al-Bayati said.
These demands have been listed by people close to Mr. Sadr in statements or tweets in recent days.
The UN Mission in Iraq issued a statement calling on politicians on all sides to calm the situation. “The ongoing escalation is of deep concern,” the statement said. “The voices of reason and wisdom are critical to preventing further violence. All involved are encouraged to de-escalate for the benefit of all Iraqis.”
There were also calls for calm from some of Mr. Sadr’s political opponents, while others sounded more confrontational.
Ministry of Health officials said there were 125 wounded by noon. There were reports that tear gas and stun bombs were used to disperse crowds, but government security forces have so far been largely held back at the request of acting Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who coordinated with his security forces. and protesters to avoid clashes and accusations that he suppresses freedom of expression.
Some of the roots of this week’s unrest go back to the 2019 protests, which raised the profile of many activists but ultimately did little to reform.
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Initially, these demonstrations were primarily advocated by civil society activists and anti-corruption advocates who opposed Iran-linked militias in Iraq, as well as the government’s failure to provide jobs and persistent corruption. They were joined by Mr. Sadr’s supporters, who also said they were strongly opposed to corruption, though analysts say the asadr-controlled ministries are also rife with kickbacks and other corruption.
Although Mr. Sadr also has ties to Iran and a number of his close relatives live there, he is promoting an Iraqi nationalist agenda that asserts his power and that of Iraq, not loyalty to Iran.
The 2019 protests resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Mehdi and the election of Mr Kadhimi in his place until early elections were held.
However, these elections did not lead to a consensus on the country’s new political leadership or reforms. There is no figure now, whether Shia, Sunni or Kurdish, that can respond to the demands of the people through Iraq’s disparate religious, ethnic and political identity, said Mr. Kadim of the Atlantic Council.
According to him, the Iraqi summer heat exacerbates the instability of the situation. “Every time there are crowds of people on the streets, the risk of violence is 70 percent,” he said. “Hot, summer, July, Iraq; you don’t need more than 20 people in one place.”