Sadr supporters mass in Iraq prayer rally amid political deadlock

·3-min read

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim worshippers loyal to Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr attended a Friday prayer service in Baghdad, in a display of political might to revive stalled talks on government formation.

The huge turnout came despite scorching heat and the Shiite cleric not being there in person -- an indication of his status as a political heavyweight, as well as a key religious authority.

"Thanks to God for this great victory... Thank you to Friday's faithful," Sadr said on Twitter.

The midday prayer, on Al-Falah Avenue in Sadr City, was led by a Sadr ally, while the mercurial cleric's sermon took aim at rivals from other Shiite factions, including a powerful ex-paramilitary network.

"We are at a difficult... crossroads in the formation of the government, entrusted to some we do not trust," said Sheikh Mahmud al-Jayashi, reading Sadr's speech.

Some factions have shown they are "not up to the task", he added.

Sadr's bloc won 73 seats in the October 2021 election, making it the largest faction in the 329-seat parliament.

But since the vote, talks to form a new government have stalled and the oil-rich country remains mired in a political and socioeconomic crisis, despite elevated global oil prices.

The various Shiite political factions, representing Iraq's largest community, remain unable to agree on a new prime minister.

Sadr initially supported the idea of a "majority government" which would have sent his Shiite adversaries from the pro-Iran Coordination Framework into opposition.

The former militia leader then surprised many by compelling his deputies to resign from parliament in June, a move seen as seeking to pressure his rivals to fast-track government formation.

But a month later the process has not advanced.

- Taking aim at Hashed -

Sadr's sermon took particular aim at the Hashed al-Shaabi, a Shiite former paramilitary force that has been integrated into the army, but is seen by many Iraqis as an Iranian proxy.

The Hashed "must be reorganised and undisciplined elements must be removed", the preacher said, lamenting "foreign interventions" but without naming any country.

He also called for the Hashed -- whose political wing is part of the Coordination Framework -- to be kept at "a distance from politics and business".

Analyst Hamzeh Hadad said the main objective of Friday's rally was to demonstrate that while Sadr's lawmakers had resigned, "it does not mean that he is no longer relevant politically".

"He was flexing his muscles and showing the influence he still has on the street," Hadad said, adding that the points made in his sermon were "nothing new".

Before the prayer began, Sadr loyalists expressed support for the cleric with cries of "Yes, yes to reform! Yes, yes to the reformer!"

Some held prayer mats in hand or waved Iraqi flags.

"We obey Moqtada Sadr, as we obey God and his prophets," Sheikh Kadhim Hafez Mohammed al-Tai told AFP at the rally in Sadr city.

After the 2003 US invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, the district of the capital was named after Mohammad Sadr, Moqtada's father, a cleric who was assassinated in 1999 under Saddam's rule.

The Friday prayers were ostensibly organised as a tribute to Sadr's father.

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