Supporters of Iraq’s powerful Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have pitched tents and are preparing for a lengthy sit-in in Iraq’s parliament, deepening a months-long political standoff.
On Saturday, supporters of the arsonist al-Sadr crowded into the parliament chamber for the second time in days after October’s elections failed to result in a government.
“The protesters are announcing a sit-in until further notice,” the al-Sadr movement said in a brief statement to journalists, transmitted by the state news agency INA.
Almost 10 months after the October elections, Iraq is still without a new government, despite intensive negotiations between the factions.
Forming a government in the oil-rich country has involved complex negotiations since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
Supporters of al-Sadr, who once led a militia against US and Iraqi government forces, oppose the election of a rival, pro-Iranian Shia bloc for prime minister – Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.
The post traditionally goes to a figure from Iraq’s Shia majority.
“We don’t want Mr al-Sudani,” said one protester, Sattar al-Aliawi, a 47-year-old official.
He told AFP news agency he was protesting against “a corrupt and incompetent government” and would “sleep here” in Parliament’s gardens.
“The people completely reject the parties that have ruled the country for 18 years,” he said.
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr put up portraits of him in Parliament [Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]
On Sunday morning, protesters celebrated the Muslim month of Muharram with religious chants and shared meals.
“We hoped for the best but we got the worst. The politicians who currently sit in parliament have done us no good,” Abdelwahab al-Jaafari, 45, told AFP.
Volunteers distributed soup, hard-boiled eggs, bread and water to the protesters.
Some spent the night in Parliament with blankets spread out on the marble floor. Others went into the gardens, on plastic mats under palm trees.
Al-Sadr’s bloc emerged from October’s elections as the largest parliamentary faction, but it was still far from a majority, creating the country’s longest political vacuum since 2003.
In June, al-Sadr’s 73 MPs resigned their seats in what was seen as an attempt to pressure his rivals to speed up the formation of a government.
That led to a pro-Iranian bloc, the Coordination Framework, becoming the largest in parliament, but there was still no agreement on appointing a new prime minister, president or cabinet.
Saturday’s demonstration came three days after crowds of al-Sadr supporters broke through the Green Zone and entered the legislature on Wednesday.
Demonstrators rest in the Iraqi Parliament in the capital Baghdad [Sabah Arar/AFP]
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdelwahed, reporting from parliament on Sunday, said protesters had promised not to leave the headquarters until their demands were met.
“These protesters have slept, prayed, sung against the Coordination Framework and chanted against it [former prime minister] Nouri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of corruption and mismanagement. They say al-Sudani is a copy of al-Maliki,” he said.
“Despite calls for calm from local and international institutions, these protesters appear determined to continue their sit-in until their demands are met.”
Ahmed Rushdi, president of the House of Iraqi Expertise Foundation, told Al Jazeera the protesters had three factors to reach their “endgame”: keeping Mustafa al-Kadhimi as prime minister, keeping the electoral committee, and complying with the electoral law.
“The three angles of the triangle are very important to get more than 100 seats in the next elections, which Sadrists said could happen in about three to six months,” Rushdi said.
“It shows how intent they are on getting the snap elections with the powerful tools – prime minister, committee and electoral law.”
The standstill marks the biggest crisis in Iraq in years. In 2017, Iraqi forces, along with a US-led coalition and Iranian military support, defeated the ISIL (ISIS) group, which had taken over a third of Iraq.
Two years later, Iraqis suffering from a lack of jobs and services took to the streets demanding an end to corruption, new elections and the removal of all parties – particularly the powerful Shia groups – that have ruled the country since 2003.
Al-Sadr continues to ride the wave of popular opposition to his Iran-backed rivals, saying they are corrupt and serve the interests of Tehran, not Baghdad.