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Iraqi cleric may have set sights on government

Iraqi cleric may have set sights on government

Moqtada al Sadr, the radical Shia cleric whose Mahdi army once took on the American occupiers, is now setting his sights on the Iraqi government. He has laid down a deadline of Thursday for Prime Minister Haider al Abadi to announce a list of new, non-corrupt, technocratic ministers. Sadr has said that if the deadline is missed his supporters will enter the green zone in central Baghdad.

Most of the government, the parliament and the foreign embassies are located in the heavily fortified green zone and many Iraqis now view it as a place in which the corrupt elite are able to stay safe as they steal the country’s money.

On Sunday Moqtada al Sadr increased the pressure on the prime minister by entering the green zone himself. He has stayed there ever since, living in a tent.

Far from telling him to turn back, army officers stationed at the green zone’s barricades kissed the cleric’s cheeks and helped construct the tent he is staying in.

Around a thousand of Sadr’s supporters are currently camped on the edge of the green zone. The protesters have become increasingly boisterous with music, fiery speakers and repeated chants denouncing the government as irredeemably dishonest.

“We are here to tell the government: you have corrupt people.” said one of the protesters, Sayed Hassan el Musawi. “The revolution is on and this is the end of the corruption.”

There is a widespread expectation that, just as the army did nothing to stop Sadr entering the green zone, they would be equally passive in the face of his supporters moving across the razor wire and concrete blocks that stand in their way.

Any army officer confronting Sadr’s supporters would risk widespread violence in the city.

The prime minister insists he, like Sadr, wants to appoint new ministers. But constructing a government in Iraq is an almost impossible task. Existing ministers have support in parliament and in many cases have links with Shia militias.

The political crisis in Baghdad comes at a time when the central government has growing military confidence.

In 2014 fighters of the militant Islamic State (IS) group swept through the north and west of Iraq and captured the second largest city, Mosul. Faced with the disintegration of large parts of the Iraqi army, the country’s most senior Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, called on the people to confront IS militants.

Volunteers joined militias or popular mobilisation units and successfully halted the IS advance on Baghdad.

Since then the Kurdish peshmerga forces, the army and the militias have all won victories over IS and the government believes it can keep up the progress. “We hope Mosul can be recaptured by the end of this year,” said Salim Al Jabouri, the president of the Iraqi parliament.

But even if there is increasing confidence in Baghdad that IS can be defeated, Iraqis are already looking ahead to the next, post-IS phase of the country’s rolling civil war.

The conflict to come, they fear, will pit the increasing powerful Shia militias against the Iraqi army. There are now over 50 militias and while there are no reliable figures, some estimates suggest they could have as many as a quarter million fighters. Some have heavy equipment, including tanks, and most receive funding from the central government.

The government says the militias should help recapture Mosul and then disband. But ministers know that militia leaders, many of whom have sponsors in the parliament, are unlikely to give up their power so easily.

“If the arms would remain outside the control of the state, this would generate great rivalry,” said Jabouri. Asked what would happen if the militias didn’t disband he replied: “The collapse of the state.”

Veteran government minister and former deputy prime minister, Hussain Al Sharistani, shares his concern. “Any armed group outside the government is a problem in any country,” he said. “This is a recipe for civil conflict.”

For millions of Iraqis it is just another thing to worry about. The people of Baghdad, their faces grey with exhaustion, have to cope with suicide attacks, roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, kidnappings and endless checkpoints. They have little expectation that things will improve anytime soon.

Thirteen years after the US invasion, Iraq remains shattered and fearful. As well as the corrupt politicians, Baghdad is filled with concrete blast walls, barbed wire, rumoured IS sleeper cells and kidnappers.

Nevertheless, some people are trying to get back to normality. The al Rashid theatre in central Baghdad has lain in ruins since the Americans bombed it in 2003. Frustrated by the government’s failure to restore the building, some volunteers recently decided to clean it up and put on a production.

With a damaged stage, crumbling walls and a roof letting in sunlight, some of Iraq’s greatest actors performed speeches of King Lear and other classics.

Many in the packed audience applauded each speech and some wept at the return of some culture to their city.

“It has been a beautiful day. My lovely day,” said Monadel Daoud, one of the actors, after the performance was finished. “I am very happy.”

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2016

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