Followers of Iraqi Cleric Occupy Parliament Again, Demanding Reforms

BASRA, Iraq — Iraqi protesters loyal to the nationalist Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr thronged Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone for the second time in a week on Saturday to prevent the formation of a new government. They scaled concrete barriers and pushed past security forces to get into the Iraqi Parliament, filling the empty seats of representatives and shouting their support for Mr. Sadr: “Son of Mohammed, take us wherever you want.”

Their move effectively made it impossible for Parliament members to convene to form a government, a step that political parties had tentatively scheduled for Saturday.

The occupation of Parliament by Mr. Sadr’s followers looked perilously like a government takeover, not least of all because as the day wore on, some of his supporters briefly moved to the building that houses judges’ offices. On social media, some Iraqi analysts voiced concerns that the crowd would target the homes of Mr. Sadr’s political opponents.

Earlier this summer, Mr. Sadr requested Parliament members loyal to him resign after a federal court ruled that two-thirds of Parliament must agree on a president and his coalition could not gather enough votes for any one individual. Mr. Sadr thought his rivals would ask him to return, but instead the next largest coalition, which includes Shiite groups that had or used to have armed elements linked to Iran, rushed to fill the empty slots with its own candidates and prepared to form a government.

It is the intra-sectarian character of the current tension that makes it so dangerous, said Abbas Kadhim, the director of the Iraq Initiative for the Atlantic Council.

“In Iraq, we used to have disputes in an inter-sectarian way — the Shia Muslims versus Sunnis, the Arabs versus the Kurds — but now we are moving to a more dangerous place which is really intra-Shia, intra-Kurd, intra-Sunni rivalries,” he said.

“People tolerate disputes with others, but disputes within a sect or an ethnicity is always a fight for the soul of the group itself, for who speaks for the group,” he added.

Mr. Sadr, who led the main Shiite opposition to the United States’ occupation of Iraq, supported the creation of an armed wing known as the Mahdi Army, which was involved in targeted killings of U.S. troops as well as executions of Iraqis perceived as “traitors.” However, Mr. Sadr later backed away from that approach and learned how to marshal the millions of Iraqis loyal to him and his storied clerical family, by sending them into the street when he wanted to exert political pressure.

Many of his supporters have felt like outsiders and Mr. Sadr fanned those feelings, counting on their passion, loyalty and sheer numbers to force those in power to meet his demands, or at least consider them.

Mr. Sadr, however, did not judge the most recent political situation accurately. Since he cannot undo his decision to withdraw from the government and is now an outsider, he has leveraged the option left to him: to send his legions of supporters to halt the creation of a new government and demand reforms and new elections that could once again bring his group power within the government.

“The protesters have issued several demands that I think are dangerous,” Sarmad Al-Bayati, an Iraqi political analyst, said in an interview.

“It might cause excitement among Iraqis; they might even get support from the Tishreen movement,” he said, referring to the thousands of protesters from different backgrounds who came together in October 2019 to demand that the government deal with unemployment, rein in corruption, supply electricity and put an end to the unbridled power of the armed groups linked to Iran. Their protests immobilized city centers from Baghdad to the south of Iraq; more than 500 protesters were killed by security forces and armed groups, and more than 19,000 were wounded, according to the United Nations.

Among the demands that could be a rallying call are: to amend the constitution to change Iraq’s government from a parliamentary to a presidential system; to anoint a caretaker government that is responsible for constitutional changes and agrees to hold early elections; and to hold corrupt officials to account, Mr. Al-Bayati said.

These demands have been enumerated by people close to Mr. Sadr in statements or tweets in recent days.

The United Nations Mission in Iraq released a statement urging political actors on all sides to calm the situation. “The ongoing escalation is deeply concerning,” the statement said. “Voices of reason and wisdom are critical to prevent further violence. All actors are encouraged to de-escalate in the interest of all Iraqis.”

There were also calls for calm from some of Mr. Sadr’s political opponents, while others sounded more confrontational.

Ministry of Health officials said that by midafternoon there had been 125 injuries. There were reports that tear gas and noise bombs were used to try to disperse the crowds, but the government’s security forces so far have largely been restrained at the request of Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Mustapha al-Kadhimi, who has coordinated with his security forces and protesters to avoid confrontations and charges that he is suppressing freedom of expression.

Some of the roots of this week’s unrest date back to the protests in 2019, which raised the profile of many activists but ultimately achieved little in the way of reform. Those demonstrations were initially championed primarily by civil society activists and anti-corruption advocates, who opposed Iranian-linked militias in Iraq as well as the government’s failure to provide jobs and staunch corruption. They were joined by Mr. Sadr’s supporters, who also claimed to be strongly opposed to corruption — although analysts say the ministries controlled by Sadrists are also rife with kickbacks and other corruption.

While Mr. Sadr also has ties to Iran and a number of his close family members live there, he has pushed an Iraqi nationalist agenda that asserts his power and that of Iraq, rather than loyalty to Iran.

The 2019 protests resulted in the resignation of the prime minister, Adil Mehdi, and the choice of Mr. Kadhimi to replace him until early elections were held.

Those elections, however, did not produce a consensus about a new political leadership for the country or reforms. Now there is no figure, neither Shiite, Sunni nor Kurd, who is able to reach across Iraq’s disparate religious, ethnic and political identities to respond to people’s demands, said the Atlantic Council’s Mr. Kadhim.

Adding to the precariousness of the situation is Iraq’s blazing summer heat, he said. “Any time you have a mass of people in the streets, the risk of violence is 70 percent,” he said. “It’s hot, it’s summer, it’s July, it’s Iraq; you don’t want more than 20 people in one place.”