Baghdad braces for clashes as rival camps to stage protests

Supporters of Iraqi populist leader Moqtada al-Sadr gather for a sit-in at the parliament building, amid political crisis in Baghdad, Iraq August 1, 2022. REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Baghdad braced for demonstrations on Monday by rival Shi'ite Muslim groups which are affiliated with heavily armed militias, raising fears of clashes as tension soars over the formation of a government.

Iraq's longest post-election deadlock, at nearly 10 months with no government after an October vote, has led to unrest including protests by supporters of the powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who are occupying parliament in an open-ended sit-in.

Sadr's opponents include a grouping of parties and militias mostly aligned with Iran. That grouping, known as the Shi'ite Coordination Framework, has called for counterprotests on Monday evening near the parliament, saying that was aimed at protecting state institutions against the civil unrest of the Sadrists.

"We're ready for whatever Sadr orders," said one supporter of the cleric, Kadhim Haitham, on his way to join the parliament sit-in.

"We're against the Framework. All they've got is statements and no popular support. We don't know if their protest will be armed but they're scared."

The Iraqi parliament sits in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, which Sadr supporters stormed with ease twice last week as security forces stood back. The Framework's protests are due to take place nearby at the entrance of the Green Zone.

A commander of a pro-Iran militia said he feared clashes and hoped calm heads would prevail.

"The situation in Iraq is very tough. We hope God will deliver us from fighting among the brothers. If things devolve, it will ruin the whole region," the commander said, declining to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

Sadr came first in the October election, but withdrew all his lawmakers from parliament after he failed to form a government that excluded his Shi'ite rivals.

He has since exerted political pressure through his masses of loyal followers, mostly working-class Shi'ites from poor neighbourhoods in Baghdad and across southern Iraq, the heartland of the country's Shi'ite majority.

Sadr's actions have prevented his rivals, including bitter foe, ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, from forming a government. Parliament must choose a president and premier and cannot convene while it is occupied by Sadr's followers.

The Sadrists have called for new elections and an end to the political system that has existed since the U.S.-led invasion which toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

That system distributes power by sect and party, and is blamed by many Iraqis for the endemic corruption and dysfunction that has prevented any meaningful progress for years, despite Baghdad's oil wealth and relative peace after the defeat of Islamic State militants in 2017.

Sadr is one of the chief beneficiaries of that system. His loyalists run some of Iraq's wealthiest and worst-managed ministries.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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