Hundreds of thousands gather for mass prayer in Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis responded to a call from an influential Shiite cleric to come together in a show of force for a mass prayer in the heart of Baghdad’s government area on Friday. The rally took place amid a growing political crisis that has put the country’s capital on edge.

The powerful cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, had called on his followers from across Iraq to pray inside Baghdad’s Green Zone – a heavily fortified area in the heart of the city that houses government buildings and foreign embassies. . They arrived and stood outside in the scorching summer heat, with temperatures reaching 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit).

Meanwhile, in the southern holy city of Najaf, Iraqi UN mission chief Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert met with al-Sadr on Friday. She then told reporters that they discussed the importance of finding a solution to the political crisis.

Friday’s mass prayer was the latest show of strength from the cleric, whose political power stems from his strong base of grassroots support. The crowd stretched for miles, spilling into the streets outside the square.

Several people fainted after waiting for hours for the prayer to start and were taken to hospital in ambulances.

Al-Sadr used his large base of supporters as a pressure tactic against his rivals after his party was unable to form a government despite winning the most seats in the federal elections in last October. He abandoned efforts to form the next government in June.

His supporters gathered in front of the Victory Arch, a monument erected under Saddam Hussein’s regime to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war and to hold military parades.

Farid Jaafar, 16, arrived from the southern province of Babylon to show his support for al-Sadr. His transportation was paid for by al-Sadr’s party. “I love Muqtada,” he said.

Holding the prayer in the highly restrictive area closed to most Iraqis indicates the power and influence of the cleric.

Last Saturday, thousands of his supporters stormed parliament in a bid to derail attempts by al-Sadr’s Shia rivals to form a government. About 125 people were injured in the violence, mostly protesters and 25 members of the security forces.

Al-Sadr’s supporters camped inside parliament until he ordered them, after four days, to withdraw from the assembly building but maintain a sit-in outside. He calls for the dissolution of parliament and early elections.

Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi, an ally of al-Sadr, voiced his support for the snap elections, saying the pleas of the clerics and those of his supporters “cannot be overlooked”.

“We support the continuation of parliamentary and local elections within an agreed timeframe,” he said in a statement.

Al-Sadr’s Shia rivals in the Iran-backed coordination framework have said they will consider holding snap elections if there is a national consensus.

After Friday prayers, many protesters returned to the sit-in site in front of parliament.

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