Threat of protests and violent escalation stirs panic in Iraq

Iraqi protesters, mostly followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, fill the parliament building in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, July 31, 2022. [AP]

Iraqi security forces erected concrete barriers Monday ahead of counter-protests planned by Shiite political rivals against an influential cleric whose followers have staged a parliament sit-in for the third day.

Many feared that duelling protests could escalate tensions.

Calls for the counter-protest came from a political alliance of Iran-backed groups opposed to the open-ended sit-in inside Iraq's parliament by followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The prospect of opposing demonstrations stirred fears of a deepening political crisis. Iraq's political sphere has been in a vacuum since the federal elections in October.

The counter-protest was called for by the Coordination Framework, an alliance led by Shiite parties close to Iran, and was slated to take place Monday afternoon. The alliance instructed participants to gather around Baghdad's July 14th Bridge, which leads to the heavily fortified Green Zone where the parliament is housed.

The alliance forbade participants from entering the zone, directing them to "wait for instructions." That signalled to protesters not to clash with al-Sadr's followers but opened the possibility of drawn-out demonstrations in a standoff against al-Sadr.

The alliance also called for its supporters to respect the state security forces and carry Iraqi flags. Security forces erected concrete walls to act as a buffer, blocking off the passage from the bridge to the Green Zone.

The announcement came after al-Sadr issued a statement late Sunday calling for "revolution" and to change the political system and the constitution and abolish his rivals while encouraging Iraqi tribes to join him. His opponents perceived that message as a call to a coup. Fractures appeared within the leadership of the Framework, with some members calling for restraint. Others pushed for escalation.

Al-Sadr's chief rival, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the head of the Framework alliance, and Shiite leader Qais al-Khazali appear to be leading the push for protests. Meanwhile, Fatah Alliance head Hadi al-Ameri is urging control and moderation, two Shiite political officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Kataib Hezbollah, another Iran-backed militia group, has also suggested it will not participate.
If the protests escalate, it would be the closest followers of al-Sadr and al-Maliki will come to a confrontation since 2008.