Baghdad plagued by protests as political rivals vie for power

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BAGHDAD — Rival protesters took to the streets of Iraq on Friday as their leaders vied for political dominance, just ten months after a U.S.-backed election that aimed to heal the country’s rifts left many more exposed .

The aftermath of these polls brought to the surface tensions that had been going on for years. In a country where elites rule by consensus, rival Shia, Kurdish and Sunni politicians have been unable to agree on key government appointments. The biggest winner of the election, the powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, withdrew his parliamentarians from the process, sending his supporters instead to occupy the green grounds of the legislature.

He is now calling for snap elections, which would be the second in less than a year.

As dusk approached on Friday, Sadr’s supporters rallied in provinces across the country and outside parliament to echo his demands. But they were not alone. Several miles away, near Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, thousands of infantrymen from the cleric’s rivals, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and leaders of Iran-linked armed groups, also gathered to protest what they called a “political coup” by Sadr.

As night fell, crowds of hundreds were building tents in the capital, and people said they were settling for the long haul.

“We will stay as long as it takes,” said Ali Hassan, a 30-year-old Baghdad government employee. “People know our demands and they know they are legitimate.”

Iraqi cleric shakes up politics as summer heat descends

While the politics were complicated, the core problem was simple, analysts said. Twenty years after the US-led invasion, the victors of the kleptocratic political system it finally installed are now fighting over who will reap its spoils.

Millions of ordinary Iraqis are excluded from this system and have benefited little from the country’s immense oil wealth. Hospitals are collapsing, the education system is among the worst in the region. For three days last week, as a heat wave pushed temperatures past 125 degrees, three southern provinces failed to even keep the lights on as the extreme heat pushed a power grid already fragile to the breaking point.

Iraq roasts in dangerous 120 degree heat as power grid shuts down

But the atmosphere was festive outside Baghdad’s parliament on Friday as young men in black T-shirts marched through the streets carrying photographs of Sadr and his father, a revered cleric killed by dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime.

A small loudspeaker blasted music through the air as groups of protesters sang and swayed, others enjoyed free skewers or large chunks of melon. “We are here to dissolve parliament and to respond to Sayeed Moqtada’s demands,” said Hassan al-Iraqi, a religious studies student in his 30s who said he made the five-hour drive from the city. north of Mosul.

Sadr draws his strength in part from millions of impoverished followers who regard him as a sacred figure of legendary lineage and as someone who stood up to occupation and injustice. For weeks, he used his Twitter account to praise the efforts of his supporters on the streets, likening their efforts to a “revolution”.

The messages were received with a mixture of excitement and reverence, as groups of teenagers passed around cellphones to read his messages.

As night fell on Friday, politicians from the opposing bloc were also tweeting statements praising their own supporters.

Maliki described the gatherings as “massive” and peaceful.

“Today you have brought joy to the hearts of Iraqis,” wrote Qais al-Khazali, a Shia cleric aligned with Maliki. “The martyr Muhandis is very happy when he sees his sons defending Iraq and the interests of the people and the State with courage and conscience”, he wrote, referring to a powerful militia leader killed alongside of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a drone in January 2020. strike ordered by President Donald Trump.

Experts see the drone strike as a watershed moment in Iraq’s final denouement – the two men killed were key figures in maintaining unity between the country’s now-divided Shia factions.

In downtown Baghdad, another group also gathered on Friday as the heat subsided and traffic rushed through the streets. They were secular activists, and they had planned their own demonstration in a place etched in the annals of the American invasion: Firdoos Square, where American troops once tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein.

“This whole system was built on a mistake,” said Najad al-Iraqi, an activist, who said he hadn’t voted in a single election since Saddam’s fall. “None of these parties have ever worked for us,” he said. “They’re all corrupt, every one of them.”

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