ROME – Demonstrators stormed Iraqi’s parliament and high-security Green Zone over the weekend, prompting one of the country’s top Catholic prelates to condemn sectarianism and call for dialogue, lest the situation worsen.
In a July 31 appeal from his summer residence in Erbil, Cardinal Luis Raphael Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, said Iraq is currently sitting “on a hot plate, due to the blockage of the political horizon, and the unemployed and the poor leaving to demonstrate.”
“The scene is frightening and cannot be postponed, so the political poles in particular and the religious authorities must deal with the matter before a tsunami occurs that may sweep everyone away,” he said.
On Saturday, July 30, supporters of powerful Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr forced their way into the legislative chamber of Iraq’s parliament for the second time in days. Three days earlier, al-Sadr supporters first breached the Green Zone and entered the legislature.
Since Iraq’s parliamentary elections last October, the country’s political leaders have been unable to form a government.
Iraq’s Sadrist Movement, the largest grouping in parliament, has been blocked repeatedly by opposing parties, with many refusing to renounce their own candidates for president, and several voting sessions have been boycotted, preventing any candidate from reaching the needed two-thirds majority to secure a win.
Supporters of al-Sadr, who once led a militia against the United States and Iraqi government forces, are opposed to attempts from pro-Iranian political groups to form a government, with Iraqi politician Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as their candidate for prime minister.
In last year’s October elections, al-Sadr’s party emerged as the largest parliamentary faction, but was still far from being a majority. The stalemate that followed has been the country’s longest political vacuum since 2003, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In June, al-Sadr’s 73 legislators resigned their seats in a move largely interpreted as a bid to pressure his rivals into quickly forming a government. The pro-Iran Coordination Framework then became the largest party in parliament, but members have still been unable to name a new prime minister, president or cabinet.
Ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, government formation in the country has involved complex negotiations.
Some demonstrators who entered Iraq’s parliament stayed overnight, and are preparing for a lengthy sit-in.
Food was distributed and while some spent the night inside with blankets spread out on the marble floors, others took to the gardens, sleeping on plastic mats under palm trees. On Sunday morning, the demonstrators marked the Muslim month of Muharram by singing religious chants and organizing collective meals.
While the aim of the mass sit-in is an attempt to block pro-Iranian rivals of al-Sadr in their efforts to form a government, the demands of demonstrators for early elections, constitutional amendments, and the ousting of al-Sadr’s opponents, are complicated, and tough to meet.
In his statement, Sako said the current political chaos “must be read deeply, and evaluated seriously, and not misread.”
Politicians, he said, ought to acknowledge “the failure of the sectarian and quota system approach,” which he said has “brought corruption and injustice” among political elites.
Sako also urged the country’s political leaders to change their tactics and embrace a more civil tone, saying “stubbornness and defamation are not a solution.”
He encouraged political leadership to “carefully review their accounts” in the current chaos and said they must be ready to “make concessions in order to save the country.”
This will only happen, he said, “by initiating a fraternal dialogue and a responsible national spirit to find an effective new political approach that builds the state and serves the people and not a specific group.”
At least 125 people have been injured in the protests during each of the demonstrators’ attempts to breach parliament this week.
However, Sako, in his statement, praised the demonstrations for having “high discipline in peace” and for generally avoiding violence and respecting state property, as those who entered parliament reportedly have not looted offices or sought to damage anything, but are merely camped out, passing around food and drink.
Demonstrators, Sako said, have also respected “the gains made by the current government in creating an environment conducive to building the state at the internal and external levels.”
Appearing to be supportive of the decision to protest, he said the demonstrations “are the cornerstone of dialogue in order to find a solution that achieves peace, stability and prosperity for citizens.”