Opponents of populist Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr launched their own sit-in in Baghdad on Friday, two weeks after Sadr supporters stormed parliament and launched an open protest, first inside and then outside the legislature.
The hostile encampments are the latest twist in a standoff between the rival Shia blocs of Iraq, which has so far remained peaceful in the war-ravaged country.
In a statement read to thousands of supporters gathered on one of the main gateways to the Green Zone government and its diplomatic compound, the pro-Iran Coordination Framework said it would hold an “indefinite sit-in” to form a new government to end the months-long standoff.
An AFP correspondent saw protesters assembling large metal tent frames, ready to camp.
Loyalists of Sadr, a respected Shia cleric who once led a militia against US and Iraqi government forces, have demanded new elections after the Coordination Framework designated a candidate for the premiership, a position they believe should be theirs.
The Coordination Framework, an alliance bringing together the party of ex-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a longtime Sadr enemy, and the Hashed al-Shaabi, a pro-Iran former paramilitary network now integrated into the security forces, wants a new government as soon as possible.
A statement from the alliance demanded the “formation of a new government” that would provide public services and solutions to power outages and water shortages.
“We are here to protect the state and the constitution,” said Abu Mehdi, a protest organizer from the city of Hilla, south of the capital.
“Give the Coordination Framework a chance to form a government.”
Earlier in the day, thousands of Sadr supporters gathered for weekly Muslim prayers near parliament in the normally secure Green Zone.
A week earlier, Sadr had called tens of thousands of his followers to prayer in the area.
For nearly two weeks, his supporters held daily sit-ins, first within the legislature and later on the ground.
Their protest reflects months of failed negotiations by Iraqi political forces to form a new government after inconclusive elections in October.
Outside parliament, Umm Hussein, a Sadr supporter in her 50s, said she was there to protest “against the regime that has done nothing for the people for 20 years except looting and stealing public money”.
“Ninety percent of the population lives in poverty, disease, hunger,” she lamented, demanding “new faces” at the helm who would “serve the people.”
Sadr supporters also gathered in the southern cities of Amarah, Kut and Nasiriyah on Friday. Their rivals demonstrated in the main northern city of Mosul, AFP correspondents reported.
On Wednesday, Sadr demanded that the judiciary dissolve parliament by the end of next week, as part of his call for new elections.
To continue his campaign, Sadr called on his supporters to petition the courts en masse.
Stewards handed out printed forms outside parliament on Friday, on which protesters only had to put their names and signatures.
The Kader had initially said that they were conditionally open to new elections.
Asked what he would do if the courts rejected the petitions, 32-year-old engineer Ahmed al-Ibrahimi said: “Revolution is a protracted struggle. Defeating retreat is not in our dictionary.
“We will continue our sit-in and we will maintain our demand for the overthrow of this corrupt political junta.”