Hundreds of thousands of people gathered for mass prayer in Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AP) – Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis heed the call of an influential Shiite cleric to gather in a show of strength for mass prayer in the heart of Baghdad’s government district on Friday. The meeting took place amid an escalating political crisis that has put the country’s capital in a difficult position.

Powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr urged his followers from all over Iraq to pray in Baghdad’s Green Zone – a heavily fortified area in the heart of the city that is home to 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, the head of Iraq’s UN mission, Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert, met with al-Sadr on Friday in the southern holy city of Najaf. She later told reporters that they discussed the importance of finding a solution to the political crisis.

Friday’s mass prayer was the last show of strength for the cleric, who draws his political strength from strong grassroots support. The crowd stretched for miles and poured into the streets outside the square.

Many people waiting for the prayer to start for hours were taken to the hospital by ambulances.

Al Sadr used his broad base as a pressure tactic against his rivals after his party failed to form a government despite winning the most seats in last October’s federal elections. He abandoned his efforts to form the next government in June.

His followers gathered opposite the Arc de Triomphe, a monument erected during Saddam Hussein’s regime to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war and hold military parades.

Farid Jafar, 16, came from the southern province of Babylon to show his support for Sadr. Sadr’s party paid the transfer fee. “I love Muqtada,” he said.

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

Last Saturday, thousands of his followers stormed parliament in an attempt to derail government-forming attempts by Sadr’s Shiite rivals. About 125 people were injured in the violence, most of them protesters and 25 members of the security forces.

Sadr’s supporters camped inside the parliament until four days later, when he ordered them to withdraw from the parliament building but to continue the sit-in outside. It calls for the dissolution of parliament and early elections.

Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi, an ally of Sadr, signaled his support for the snap election, saying that the clerics’ and supporters’ calls “cannot be ignored”.

“We support the progress of the parliamentary and local elections within an agreed period of time,” he said.

Sadr’s Shiite opponents in the Iran-backed Coordination Framework said they would consider holding early elections if there was a national consensus.

After the Friday prayer, many demonstrators returned to the sitting area outside the parliament.

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