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Threat of protests and violent escalation spreading panic in Iraq – The Denver Post

By SAMYA KULLAB and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi security forces erected concrete barriers on Monday ahead of planned counter-protests by Shia political rivals against an influential cleric whose supporters staged a parliamentary sit-in for a third day.

Many feared the protest duels would escalate tensions.

Calls for the counter-protest came from a political alliance of Iran-backed groups opposed to a sit-in in Iraq’s parliament by supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The prospect of opposition demonstrations raised fears of a worsening political crisis. The Iraqi political sphere has been empty since the federal elections in October.

The counter-protest was called by the Coordination Framework, an alliance led by Shia parties close to Iran, and is expected to take place on Monday afternoon. The alliance asked participants to gather around the July 14 Bridge in Baghdad, which leads to the heavily fortified Green Zone where the parliament is located.

The alliance banned participants from entering the area, ordering them to “await instructions”. This signaled protesters not to confront al-Sadr’s supporters, but opened up the possibility of endless protests in a stalemate against al-Sadr.

The alliance also called on its supporters to respect state security forces and carry Iraqi flags. Security forces erected concrete walls to act as a buffer, blocking the passage from the bridge to the green zone.

The announcement came after al-Sadr issued a statement on Sunday evening calling for “revolution” and changing the political system and constitution and abolishing his rivals while encouraging Iraqi tribes to join him. His opponents saw this message as a call for a coup.

Fractures have emerged within the Framework’s leadership, with some members refusing to participate and calling for restraint. Others pushed for escalation.

Al-Sadr’s main rival, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, head of the Framework alliance, and Shiite leader Qais al-Khazali, appear to be leading the push in protests. Meanwhile, Fatah Alliance leader Hadi al-Ameri is calling for control and moderation, two Shiite politicians said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations.

Kataib Hezbollah, another Iran-backed militia, also hinted that it would not participate.

If the protests escalate, it would be the closest supporters of al-Sadr and al-Maliki who will clash since 2008, when the former prime minister led the Iraqi army to oust the former militia from the religious, the Mahdi army, from the southern city of Basra.

The pair, both powerful in their own right, have been bitter enemies ever since.

Al-Sadr loyalists continued their sit-in for a third day. Thousands of them stormed parliament on Saturday, for the second time in the space of a week. This time they did not disperse peacefully.

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