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Iraq: Thousands of al-Sadr supporters rally in Baghdad

July 15, 2022

Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims rallied in Baghdad under the scorching midday sun. Powerful Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr did not make an appearance.

Hundreds of thousands of al-Sadr supporters fill the large Baghdadi street
Al-Sadr supporters traveled to the capital from other parts of the country for the mass Friday prayerImage: Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/dpa/picture alliance

In a show of strength for the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, hundreds of thousands of his supporters gathered for Friday prayers in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad amid failed attempts to form a government.

The worshippers, wearing white and carrying Iraqi flags under the scorching sun, filled the al-Falah street of Sadr City — the neighborhood seen as a stronghold of the populist figure.

Al-Sadr's bloc became the biggest faction in the Iraqi parliament, but he ordered his lawmakers to resign en masse after Sunni and Iraqi parties failed to come to a power-sharing agreement acceptable to the cleric. Al-Sadr seeks to exclude his rivals from Iran-backed Shiite groups.

Although al-Sadr himself did not attend the Friday prayers, the mass gathering showed his ability to mobilize his support base and potentially disrupt the political process.

What does al-Sadr want?

Sheikh Mahmoud al-Jiyashi led the prayers, reading out a speech from al-Sadr in which he reiterated his calls to disband armed groups in reference to the Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iranian-backed Shiite paramilitary group that has since been integrated into the Iraqi army.

He said that the group "must be reorganized and undisciplined elements must be removed," lamenting "foreign interventions" but without naming specific countries.

Al-Sadr supporters gathered in Baghdad
Many worshippers had hoped to see al-Sadr himself and were disappointed by his no-showImage: Ameer Al-Mohammedawi/dpa/picture alliance

"We are at a difficult... crossroads in the formation of the government, entrusted to some we do not trust," al-Jiyashi read out from the cleric's sermon.

The show of force is seen as an attempt to push ahead government talks while he maintains his extra-parliamentary power, and to threaten al-Sadr's Shiite rivals.

Iraq's political stalemate

The oil-rich nation has been stuck in its second-longest period without a government following the election in October. The vote saw particularly low participation following widespread protests against the government in previous years.

With al-Sadr's lawmakers having resigned from parliament, it is now up to the Iranian-backed parties to try forming a government with the Sunni and Kurdish parties, but it is unclear what will happen next.

Iranian-backed parties have dominated Iraqi politics since the 2003 US invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein's regime. But many see them as the cause of Iraq's many problems.

Large-scale protests, with the potential for violence, are an established tactic for al-Sadr. In 2016, his supporters rallied at the Green Zone — the highly fortified complex in Baghdad that houses government buildings.

Iraqi leaders, especially those close to Iran, now fear that al-Sadr may use his working-class Shiite base to bring down political leaders in the future. This scenario is believed to be even more likely if al-Sadr's rival, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, returns to power.

ab/dj (AP, Reuters, AFP)