Supporters of Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr staged a sit-in on Tuesday in front of the headquarters of the Supreme Judicial Council in Baghdad, in the latest chapter in the political crisis that has crippled the country for months.
The protesters are demanding the dissolution of parliament, holding corrupt figures to account and amendments to the constitution related to how the majority bloc at parliament can form a new government.
Tuesday’s move will likely pave the way for more paralysis in Iraq and the dismantling of the political system in place after the 2003 US invasion.
Later on Tuesday, Sadr ordered his supporters to withdraw from in front of the Supreme Judicial Council “to preserve the reputation of the beloved revolutionaries and to avoid harming the people,” tweeted the cleric.
The protesters withdrew from the area but kept their tents at Sadr’s orders.
He suggested that they maintain their sit-in at parliament “if they desired as this is a decision that is up to the people.”
Prior to the protesters’ withdrawal, the judiciary had issued three arrest warrants against Sadrist officials and officers who were lax in protecting the judicial council headquarters, allowing the demonstrators to reach it.
One warrant was issued against leading Sadrist, former MP Sheikh Sabah al-Saadi on charges of threatening the judiciary.
On Monday, he had tweeted that the judiciary was not at an equal distance from all, suggesting that it favored the corrupt and was unjust towards the people.
In wake of his warrant, he again tweeted against the judiciary, accusing of it of double standards whereby it was quick to condemn his statements, while it had never taken action against other critics, such as Hadi al-Ameri, “who had threatened the judiciary in broad daylight.”
He also criticized the judiciary for its inaction against former Prime Minister and longtime Sadr rival, Nouri al-Maliki, “whose recent damning voice recordings had threatened civil peace.”
“I do not fear prison or arrest. We have not and will not remain silent over corruption and oppression,” vowed Saadi.
The judiciary will resume its activities on Wednesday after the Sadrists withdrew from the area, the state news agency INA reported.
“In light of the withdrawal of the demonstrators and the lifting of the siege on the headquarters of the Supreme Judicial Council and the Federal Supreme Court, it was decided to resume work normally in all courts as of tomorrow morning,” the council said.
Sadr has helped inflame tensions in Iraq in recent weeks by commanding thousands of followers to storm and occupy parliament, preventing the formation of a government nearly 10 months after elections.
The judiciary condemned the gathering of protesters outside its headquarters as “unconstitutional behavior”, adding that protesters had sent threats by phone.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who cut short a trip to Egypt to deal with the crisis, urged all sides to calm down and renewed calls for a national dialogue.
In a statement, Kadhimi said disrupting the judiciary “exposes the country to serious risks”.
The standoff in Iraq is the longest stretch without a fully functioning government in the nearly two decades since Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the 2003 invasion.
Sadr was the biggest winner of the 2021 election but was unable to form a government with Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties, excluding his Iran-backed Shiite rivals.
The cleric, who has unmatched influence in Iraq, can quickly mobilize hundreds of thousands of followers to stage demonstrations and paralyze the country's byzantine politics.
Sadr has called for early elections and unspecified changes to the constitution after withdrawing his lawmakers from parliament in June.
“The people are demanding the parliament to be dissolved and the immediate formation of an interim government,” said a protester draped in an Iraqi flag.
“Help us. Stand with us. Don't be afraid of anyone,” said another demonstrator.
Sadr's political opponents, mostly fellow Shiites backed by Iran, have refused to accede to his demands, raising fears of fresh unrest and violence in a conflict-weary Iraq.