Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, held a rally on Friday amid stalled talks on forming a new government, a show of force against Iran-backed groups.
Watched by a large security presence, people from across the country filled up Baghdad’s Sadr City's al-Falah Street — the main thoroughfare that cuts across the populist figure's key bastion of support – in a mass gathering considered a show of force by the cleric whose party won the highest number of seats in the October national elections but withdrew after failing to form a government with Sunni and Kurdish allies in Iraq's hectic power-sharing system free of Iran-backed parties that have dominated many state institutions for years.
A day after the rally on Saturday, Iran's hardline newspaper Kayhan criticized the speech by Sadr, saying that such divisive statements will not create unity among Iraqis and will only lead to sedition.
Sadr did not attend the prayer; despite rumors he would deliver a fiery address. Instead, a representative reiterated Sadr's calls for the next government to disband militia groups loyal to Iran and punish corrupt politicians for squandering Iraq's vast oil wealth, apparently directed at his arch rival former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
In a message read out to his supporters during the service, Sadr -- who is against Iran’s presence in Iraq -- renewed his call to dismantle outlaw armed factions, referring to Iran-backed Shiite militia Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as Popular Mobilization Forces, which was led by former Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis before he was killed alongside Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 by a US drone strike.
Sadr City's al-Falah Street — the main thoroughfare that cuts across the populist figure's key bastion of support
Sadr reiterated his demand to reorganize the Hashd al-Shaabi and keep it away from foreign interventions – an indirect reference to Iran – adding that the ranks of these forces should be cleansed of incompetent people.
He also said Hashd al-Shaabi should not be involved in sectarian conflicts, noting that they should withdraw from the Sunni-dominant areas.
Moreover, Sadr also called for more authority and respect for army and police forces, saying that outlaw groups should not be able to intervene in military matters.
He noted that "It's not possible to form a strong Iraqi government with unlawful militias. You must dissolve all those factions... "the first step to repentance is to punish the corrupt without delay".
The Shiite cleric added that most of those who hindered forming the government, "do not believe, deep down, that loving the homeland is part of their faith, and chose to belong to foreign parties. I invite them to prioritize their love for the homeland, and deal with other countries reciprocally."
"Sadr was here watching us. Loyalty is about answering his call," Reuters quoted Safaa al-Baghdadi, a 42-year-old religious instructor who works in the southern holy city of Najaf, as saying. "His message to the political establishment is to disband the militias who killed Iraqis," he said, referring to mass anti-government, anti-corruption protests in 2019 when police and militias shot hundreds of peaceful demonstrators. "He's also telling Iraqis - if you rise up, I'll support you. We'll do whatever he says.”
"We could be millions strong today," said Riyadh Husseini, 42, a manual laborer from the southern town of Hilla who travelled to Baghdad and slept on the street overnight in front of the podium where he hoped Sadr would appear. "If Sadr calls for the removal of the corrupt parties in power, they'll be gone within the hour," he said.
The success of the Sadrist bloc in the election had raised the possibility that he could sideline his Iranian-backed rivals who had dominated politics in Iraq for years, but political disagreement among parties hindered parliament from electing a president and forming a government.
Late in June, about two weeks after the mass resignation of the Sadrist bloc, Iraq's parliament swore in dozens of new lawmakers, giving majority to Iran-backed politicians in the assembly.
Earlier in June, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein criticized the Islamic Republic’s interference in Iraq's internal affairs, saying Baghdad's tone has changed vis-à-vis Tehran, noting that Iranian interference in Iraq is “unacceptable."
“We have told our Iranian brothers that we are geographical neighbors and that will stay...therefore we need cooperation, we do not need interference from Iran. Interference in Iraqi affairs cannot be accepted from any state,” Hussein said.
Divisions between Sadr and the Iran-aligned groups as well as Kurds vying for the post of Iraqi president have already forced the country into its second-longest period without an elected government. The country is currently being run by the outgoing government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.