Iraq Shiites Demand Parliament End

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Hundreds of supporters of an influential Shiite cleric in Iraq rallied on Tuesday in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, demanding the dissolution of parliament and early elections.

The demonstration outside the Supreme Judicial Council and parliament buildings in the Iraqi capital underscored how intractable Iraq's latest political crisis has become.

The followers of the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr and his political rivals, the Iran-backed Shiite groups, have been at odds since after last year's parliamentary elections.

Al-Sadr won the largest share of seats in the October vote but failed to form a majority government, leading to what has become one of the worst political crises in Iraq in recent years. His supporters in late July stormed the parliament and have held frequent protests there.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi last week called a meeting of senior political leaders and party representatives to find a solution -- but al-Sadr's party did not attend.

The firebrand cleric's supporters pitched tents outside of the Supreme Judicial Council and carried banners calling for the authorities to dissolve parliament, schedule early parliamentary elections, and combat corruption. They decried what they say is the politicization of the judiciary in favor of the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Iran-backed parties and al-Sadr's Shiite rivals.

The Supreme Judicial Council and Federal Supreme Court in a statement said they have suspended court sessions after receiving "threats over the phone" to pressure them to dissolve parliament. That step would leave Iraq with both a paralyzed parliament and judiciary, and a caretaker government that can only perform some of its duties.

Al-Sadr's Baghdad office in a statement called for the resignation of the chief of the Supreme Judicial Council, which has issued arrest warrants for three members of al-Sadr's party, accused of threatening the judiciary.

The Coordination Framework has said that parliament would have to convene to dissolve itself. On Tuesday, it urged al-Sadr's camp to "retreat from occupying constitutional state institutions and return to the forces that believe in peaceful and democratic solutions."

On Tuesday, al-Kadhimi left a regional meeting of leaders in Egypt to return to Baghdad following the developments. A statement from his office warned that suspending the judiciary could push the country into "grave dangers" and called for calm and resumption of political talks.

Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halboosi tweeted appeals to protesters not to quarrel with the judiciary, which he said was crucial at a time of crisis.

The United Nations also sounded the alarm on further political paralysis in Iraq.

"The right to peaceful protest is an essential element of democracy. Equally important is the assertion of constitutional compliance and respect for state institutions," it said in a statement. "State institutions must operate unimpeded in service of the Iraqi people, including the SJC (Supreme Judicial Council)."

Al-Sadr last Wednesday gave the judiciary a week to dissolve parliament, to which it responded saying it has no authority to do so. His supporters stormed parliament in late July.

On Saturday, he called on his followers to be ready to hold massive protests all over Iraq but then indefinitely postponed them after Iran-backed groups called for similar rallies the same day, saying he wants to preserve peace and that "Iraqi blood is invaluable" to him.