Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have demanded early elections, while his opponents, backed by Iran, have said last October’s vote should be respected.
Thousands of Sadr supporters prayed outside parliament in a show of support for the populist leader, who has called on the judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of next week.
Hours later, supporters of Iran-backed groups opposed to Sadr rallied on the edge of the fortified Green Zone, where parliament and foreign embassies are located, insisting they should form the new government on the basis of October elections.
Friday’s protest and counter-protest were the latest in a series of demonstrations that have raised fears of unrest if the political deadlock continues. Religious and political leaders enjoy the loyalty of large numbers of people and militia groups act independently of the central government.
Sadr was the winner of the October elections, but failed to form a free government from the Iranian-backed parties. He withdrew his lawmakers from Parliament and is now preventing it from electing a new government and demanding early elections.
Thousands of his supporters gathered on Friday outside Parliament. Most were dressed in black to commemorate the Muslim month of Muharram, and some wore white cloaks to symbolize shrouds and their readiness to die.
“You will not break up Iraq as long as Sadr is here,” an imam told the crowd from a large red stage set up outside Parliament. “There is no going back in this revolution (…) and the people will not give up their demands.”
Sadr’s opponents accuse him of corruption. His loyalists are said to have run some of the most corrupt and dysfunctional government departments in Iraq.
Hours after the pro-Sadr rally, thousands of people gathered to call for the formation of a government with the pro-Iranian factions in Parliament that oppose Sadr.
Some carried portraits of Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and an Iraqi militia commander who was killed alongside Soleimani in a US airstrike in Baghdad more than two years ago.