Protesters from rival Shia blocs have taken to the streets of several Iraqi cities in a show of force that sparked fears of a descent into violence amid a 10-month political standoff about naming a new government.
The rallies followed a weekend occupation of the Iraqi parliament by supporters of the powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has called for the post-2003 political system in Iraq to be overthrown through popular revolt in perhaps the most serious challenge Iraq has faced since the Islamic State terror group overran Mosul and nearly stormed Baghdad in June 2014.
Demonstrators from Iran-backed groups, known as the Coordination Framework, joined the fray as concerns grew of spillover violence among the country’s Shia communities and even deeper chaos for a country battered by a series of socio-economic crises.
The unpredictable Sadr performed strongly in a national election held last October, but ordered his MPs to resign and has recently begun rallying his formidable numbers on the Iraqi streets – posing a mounting threat to the political establishment.
Iranian-linked groups on the other hand performed poorly in the poll and have since been trying to claw back losses, refusing attempts to name a president, or prime minister and insisting that their influence remains strong in the 329-seat parliament.
Both sides avoided direct clashes on Monday. The Iranian-linked blocs ordered their supporters to depart on the same buses that had carried them to the edge of Baghdad’s Green Zone earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, Sadr’s supporters remained inside the Green Zone, where many had camped inside the parliament for the past two days, some setting up barber stalls and food carts.
Earlier, some government ministries had been evacuated in anticipation of disorder, and several powerful tribes in southern Iraq had expressed support for Sadr, who has a large and influential base among Iraq’s Shia working poor and is a force to be reckoned with among political leaders and the Shia clergy.
Though the decision to stand down, and the placatory language that followed was received with relief by senior officials, concerns remain that Monday was a dress rehearsal of days and weeks to come, where tensions could inevitably boil over, particularly if Sadr sticks to his vow to overthrow the system.
The standoff was the closest that Sadr and his bitter rival, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, have come to direct clashes since early 2008, when Maliki, as leader, ordered a military rout of Sadr’s forces in the southern city of Basra.
Maliki was ousted as leader in 2014, as Islamic State menaced Baghdad, but has manoeuvred back into a prominent position among Tehran-backed groups and has been insisting that his candidate be named as prime minister.
Baghdad has been central to a battle for influence between Iran and nationalist groups since shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iran has steadily built a power base in the country throughout the past two decades and has particular influence in the country’s parliament.
Tehran’s gains were largely consolidated under the influence of former Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, who was killed in January 2020 by a US airstrike. Since then a vacuum has formed, with numerous Iranian factions competing for control.
Sadr also maintains links to Iran, and was a prominent actor in the civil war that ripped the country apart from 2004 to 2010. However, he has since tried to establish nationalist credentials, speaking of a need to re-enfranchise Iraq’s Sunni sect, and forming ties with Kurds in the semi-autonomous north.