BAGHDAD (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis heeded the call of an influential Shiite cleric to gather in a show of strength for a mass prayer in the heart of Baghdad’s heavily fortified government zone on Friday. The gathering took place amid an escalating political crisis that has put the country’s capital on edge.
The powerful cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, had called on his followers from across Iraq to come to pray inside Baghdad’s Green Zone — a heavily fortified area in the heart of the city that houses government buildings and foreign embassies. They arrived and stood outside in the scorching summer-time heat, with temperatures reaching 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit).
Friday’s mass prayer was the latest display of strength by the cleric, whose political power derives from his strong grassroots support base.
Al-Sadr has used his large grassroots following as a pressure tactic against his rivals, after his party was not able to form a government despite having won the largest number of seats in federal elections held last October. He exited the political process to form the next government in June.
His followers gathered facing the Victory Arch, a monument erected during Saddam Hussein’s regime to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war. It was built for the purpose of holding military parades.
Farid Jaafar, 16, arrived from Babylon province to show his support for al-Sadr. His transport was paid by al-Sadr’s party he said. “I love Muqtada,” he said.
Holding the prayer within the highly restrictive zone that is closed off to most Iraqis points to the cleric’s power and influence.
Last Saturday, thousands of his followers stormed parliament in a bid to derail attempts by al-Sadr’s Shiite rivals to form a government. Around 125 people were injured in the violence, most of them protesters and 25 members of the security forces.
Al-Sadr’s followers camped out inside the parliament until he ordered them, after four days to withdraw from the assembly building, but maintain a sit-in outside. He’s calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections.
His Shiite rivals in the Iran-backed Coordination Framework have said they would consider holding early elections in the event of a national consensus.