Hundreds of protesters camp at Iraq parliament for a second day

Supporters of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr erect tents and prepare for a long sit-in against efforts by his rivals to form a government.

Supporters of powerful Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr have erected tents and are preparing for a long sit-in at Iraq’s parliament, deepening a months-long political standoff.

On Saturday, supporters of the firebrand al-Sadr forced their way into the legislative chamber for the second time in days, after October elections failed to lead to the formation of a government.

“The demonstrators announce a sit-in until further notice,” al-Sadr’s movement said in a brief statement to journalists carried by state news agency INA.

Nearly 10 months after October elections, Iraq is still without a new government despite intense negotiations between factions.

Government formation in the oil-rich country has involved complex negotiations since the 2003 invasion led by the United States toppled Saddam Hussein.

Supporters of al-Sadr, who once led a militia against the US and Iraqi government forces, oppose a rival, pro-Iran Shia bloc’s pick for prime minister – Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

The post conventionally goes to a figure from Iraq’s Shia majority.

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr raise his portraits inside the parliament [Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP]

“We don’t want Mr Sudani,” said one protester, Sattar al-Aliawi, a 47-year-old civil servant.

He said he was protesting against “a corrupt and incapable government” and would “sleep here” in the gardens of parliament. “The people totally refuse the parties that have governed the country for 18 years,” he said.

On Sunday morning, the demonstrators marked the Muslim month of Muharram with religious chants and collective meals.

“We were hoping for the best but we got the worst. The politicians currently in parliament have brought us nothing,” said Abdelwahab al-Jaafari, 45.

Volunteers distributed soup, hard-boiled eggs, bread and water to the protesters.

Some spent the night inside the parliament with blankets spread out on the marble floors. Others took to the gardens, on plastic mats under palm trees.

Al-Sadr’s bloc emerged from elections in October as the biggest parliamentary faction, but was still far short of a majority, causing the longest political vacuum in the country since 2003.

In June, al-Sadr’s 73 legislators quit their seats in a move seen as an attempt to pressure his rivals into fast-tracking the formation of a government.

That led to a pro-Iran block becoming the largest in parliament, but still there was no agreement on naming a new prime minister, president or cabinet.

Saturday’s demonstration came three days after crowds of al-Sadr supporters breached the Green Zone and entered the legislature on Wednesday.

The deadlock marks Iraq’s biggest crisis in years. In 2017, Iraqi forces, together with a US-led coalition and Iranian military support, defeated the ISIL (ISIS) group that had taken over a third of Iraq.

Two years later, Iraqis suffering from a lack of jobs and services took to the streets demanding an end to corruption, new elections and the removal of all parties – especially the powerful Shia groups – that have run the country since 2003.

Al-Sadr continues to ride the wave of popular opposition to his Iran-backed rivals, saying they are corrupt and serve the interests of Tehran, not Baghdad.

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