BAGHDAD (AP) - Supporters of Iran-backed Shiite groups rallied in Baghdad on Friday to denounce their rivals, followers of an influential Shiite cleric who stormed the parliament last month and have since been holding a sit-in outside the assembly building in the Iraqi capital.
The rivalry between the two sides shows the deep divisions within Iraq's Shiite community, which makes up about 60% of Iraq's population of over 40 million people. Unlike Iran-backed groups, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr wants better ties with Arab countries, including Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which is Shiite Iran's main rival in the region.
Al-Sadr has also been a harsh critic of widespread corruption in the oil-rich country torn by decades of violence, with a crumbing infrastructure, an impoverished majority and lack of basic services.
During their rally Friday, the protesters from the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Iran-backed parties, did not try to enter Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses Iraq's parliament, government buildings and foreign embassies - and where al-Sadr's followers are camped out. Ahead of their gathering, authorities had closed off the road leading into the Green Zone with giant cement blocks.
The counter-protest came after al-Sadr issued a deadline on Wednesday to the judiciary, giving it a week to dissolve the legislature. Al-Sadr, whose camp won most votes in last year's parliamentary elections last October, has not been able to form a majority government and after eight months of stalemate and jockeying with rival, Iran-backed Shiite factions, he abandoned those attempts.
Members of al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc resigned but instead of allowing his rivals - the Coordination Framework - to try and form a government, al-Sadr has demanded the parliament be dissolved and that early elections are held. It's unclear whether he has any legal basis for those demands.
The inter-Shiite power struggle has left Iraq in political limbo and exacerbated the economic crisis. The impasse, now in its tenth month, is the longest in the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion reset the political order.
"We are protesting against the occupation of parliament and those who threaten the judiciary," said university student, Abbas Salem, who was part of the rally Friday by Iran-backed groups.
Salem carried a poster of a top Iranian general, Qassim Soleimani, and a top Iraqi Shiite militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in a U.S. drone strike in January 2020. He said he worries that if al-Sadr forms a government, he will disband the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella of mostly Iran-backed Shiite militias.
Another protester, Ahmad al-Maliki, 52, said they are opposed to al-Sadr followers' "occupation of parliament" and added that Iraq needs a new government as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, al-Sadr's supporters in Baghdad and most Iraqi Shiite-dominated provinces - except for the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala - held their own rallies and preformed Friday prayers outdoors in a show of strength.