Iraqi cleric orders followers to continue protest in Baghdad

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BAGHDAD (AP) — Influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told his followers Wednesday to continue their sit-in inside Iraq’s government zone, and called for the dissolution of parliament and early elections, signaling a deepening power struggle with his rivals.

Speaking for the first time since thousands of his followers stormed the parliament building in Baghdad on Saturday, al-Sadr said the “revolutionaries” must stay and continue their sit-in. He dismissed the option of engaging in dialogue with his political opponents in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of mostly Iran-backed parties.

“There is no point in continuing the dialogue especially after the people have said their word,” al-Sadr said in a televised address from the holy southern city of Najaf.

He directed his followers to vacate the parliament building on Tuesday but to remain in its vicinity. A mass prayer has been called for Sunday inside the Green Zone, a heavily fortified district where the parliament and other government buildings are located.

Emboldened in the aftermath of the ongoing sit-in that has brought the capital to a standstill, Al-Sadr hinted that appeals by his political rivals to negotiate did not bear fruit.

Shiite political officials told The Associated Press that a proposal had been made requesting al-Sadr withdraw his followers from the parliament. In exchange the legislature would remain closed, inhibiting his rivals from forming a government without him.

“Dialogue with them has brought nothing but destruction, terrorism and dependency to the country, despite their pledges and signatures,” he said, in an apparent reference to his political opponents.

He said the “old faces” — referring to the establishment parties — would no longer exist after democratic early elections are held and the parliament is dissolved.

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