Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls one of Iraq’s biggest Shiite militias, urged the formation of a new government to halt the advance of Sunni militants, adding pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down.
The cleric, in a speech late yesterday, laid out an eight-point plan to resolve the crisis threatening to ignite a sectarian civil war in Iraq. He called on authorities to meet the demands of “moderate Sunnis, who have been marginalized.”
Six years after Iraqi and American forces subdued his militia, al-Sadr is seeking to bolster his role as a Shiite kingmaker as Maliki struggles to crush an al-Qaeda breakaway group in northern Iraq and rally support for his premiership among former backers like al-Sadr.
In the biggest show of military force since 2008, thousands of the cleric’s supporters marched through Baghdad with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at the weekend and declared their readiness to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the militant group that has seized Mosul, the country’s biggest northern city, and other towns this month.
In his speech, al-Sadr said a government should be formed “quickly, with new faces, from all sides and away from the sectarian quota.” American forces battled al-Sadr’s militia for years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein before Maliki began a 2008 campaign against the group, winning approval among the country’s Sunni minority.
Maliki’s opponents have accused him of failing to engage with Sunnis, a charge the premier has repeatedly denied.
The British Foreign Secretary William Hague, visiting Iraq today, warned the country faced an “existential threat” and called for unity, in a statement released by the Foreign and Commonwealth office.
Maliki, in a televised speech earlier yesterday, rejected calls to relinquish power and allow the formation of a “national salvation” government.
Even before ISIL seized control of Mosul on June 10, Maliki was already struggling to form a government following inconclusive parliamentary elections in April. Maliki’s State of Law bloc won 92 of the 328 seats. The Kurds gained 62, while Sunnis won at least 33.
Iraq’s presidential office confirmed today that parliament would convene on July 1. Under the Iraqi constitution, parliament must choose a president and prime minister within six weeks of meeting. Four years ago, the process of forming a government dragged on for eight months.
“Moqtada al-Sadr is taking advantage of Maliki’s weakness following the collapse of the Iraqi army to strengthen the hand of the Sadrist Movement and its members in parliament, the Ahrar bloc, in new government talks,” Bilgay Duman, an analyst at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara, said by phone today.