Threat of protests, violent escalation stirs fears in Iraq

Thousands gathered in Baghdad on Monday for a counter-rally called by Iran-backed groups against their rival, an influential cleric whose followers are staging a sit-in inside the Iraqi parliament — only to withdraw hours later.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the pullback by supporters of the Coordination Framework, an alliance lead by Shiite parties close to Iran, was a definite de-escalation in their power struggle with cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s loyalists.

Al-Sadr’s followers have been camped out inside the parliament in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone since thousands stormed the building on Saturday, demanding reforms and denouncing the Iran-backed alliance. Al-Sadr’s representative have called on supporters in Iraqi provinces to protest in their cities and towns in support of the parliament sit-in.

Dueling protests between the two major Shiite factions would have raised the prospect of escalating tensions and plunged Iraq deeper into crisis. The country has struggled with a political vacuum 10 months since federal elections were held last October with no one winning an outright parliament majority and tensions remain high.

Earlier Monday, Iraqi security forces erected concrete barriers ahead of the street protests by the Iran-backed groups.

By early afternoon, thousands of Shiite men arrived at the July 14th Bridge, which leads to the Green Zone, waving Iraqi flags and those belonging to Iran-backed groups and figures. They wore black, the custom ahead of the holy day of Ashura, an important day of mourning in the Shiite Muslim calendar. Ashoura starts on Sunday.

“We are sending a message to the other side that we are with the law, the state,” said one demonstrator, a member of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law party. He declined to provide his name, fearing for his safety. Al-Maliki leads the Coalition Framework.

The alliance had instructed its supporters to say at the bridge and not enter the Green Zone but to “wait for instructions.”

Paramilitary forces belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces, a state-sanctioned umbrella among which Iran-backed groups are the most powerful, formed a ring around the protesters to block off passage to the Green Zone.

Hours later, the protesters suddenly folded up their banners and left the area — after one of the alliance leaders, Qais al-Khazali, directed them to leave, announcing that their “excursion” Monday had been for “the sake of Iraq only.”

Protesters promptly curled up flags and left the area. They also dismantled the tents erected near the protest site, that at first signaled the possibility of drawn-out demonstrations in a standoff between the two Shiite factions.

On Sunday, al-Sadr had egged on his followers inside the parliament, calling for a “revolution” to change the political system, the constitution and abolish his rivals. He urged Iraqi tribes to join him, a message his rivals saw as a call to a coup.

And though the Coalition Framework swiftly urged for a counter-rally, fractures also appeared within its leadership, with some members calling for restraint and others pushing for escalation.

Among those urging control and moderation was Fatah Alliance chief Hadi al-Ameri, two Shiite political officials tole The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Kataib Hezbollah, another Iran-backed militia group, has also suggested it will not participate in the street protests.

If the situation escalates, it would be the closest that al-Sadr and al-Maliki’s followers have come to a confrontation since 2008, when Iraqi troops during al-Maliki’s administration drove out al-Sadr’s then-militia, the Mahdi Army, out of the southern city of Basra.

Al-Sadr and al-Maliki, powerful in their own right, have been bitter enemies ever since.

Al-Sadr and his party, though the winners in the October parliamentary elections, were unable to muster majority support to form a government. The chance to do so now is with the Coalition Framework, which has nominated a protégé of al-Maliki for the post.

The sit-in by al-Sadr’s followers — a wide grassroots base among the most impoverished and disenfranchised Iraqi Shiites — is seen a s a tactic to pressure his rivals and prevent them from forming the next government.

Late Monday, caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for preserving public order and urged the sit-in “brothers” to “cooperate with the security forces, respect state institutions and evacuate them.”

Meanwhile, two Shiite officials told the AP that the alliance sent al-Sadr an offer, through a mediator, that he call off the sit-in inside parliament in exchange for the Coalition Framework abandoning efforts to form a government on its own in the near-term.

The proposal also includes that the parliament be closed for an indefinite period while the two sides negotiate about forming the next Cabinet, they said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposal has not been made public.

There was no immediate reply from al-Sadr.