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Iraq cleric’s supporters rally in capital despite pandemic

The rally was a show of support for Moqtada al-Sadr.

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Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in the posters, gather in Tahrir Square, Baghdad (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in the posters, gather in Tahrir Square, Baghdad (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in the posters, gather in Tahrir Square, Baghdad (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Thousands of Iraqis, most of them not wearing protective masks, took to the streets in Baghdad on Friday in a show of support for a radical cleric ahead of elections next year, stirring fears of a spike in coronavirus cases.

Supporters congregated in the capital’s Tahrir Square, once the epicentre of mass anti-government protests, to show their support for Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads a powerful political bloc, ahead of federal elections slated for next June.

Most of Mr al-Sadr’s followers stood unmasked in the square, chanting: “Yes, yes for our leader”, in support of the firebrand cleric as Iraq remains a high-risk country for coronavirus infection.

The crowd then stood side-by-side for Friday prayers at noon.

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Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Tahrir Square (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Tahrir Square (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

AP/PA Images

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Tahrir Square (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

More than 12,000 people have died of the virus in Iraq amid 544,000 confirmed cases, according to health ministry figures.

Daily infection rates average 2,400 cases per day, but health workers say the number may be higher as many Iraqis with symptoms choose to stay home and avoid hospitals to get tested.

Iraq has the second highest outbreak and number of deaths in the region after Iran.

Mr al-Sadr leads the Sairoon political bloc, which holds the majority in parliament.

He has taken steps in preparation for elections scheduled for June next year.

His followers called for a demonstration in support of the leader’s call for mass participation in the vote.

“The Iraqi people and al-Sadr’s followers will have one saying, and that is: Yes yes for Iraq,” said Ibrahim al-Jabiri, director of Mr al-Sadr’s office north of Baghdad.

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Many attending did not wear masks (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Many attending did not wear masks (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

AP/PA Images

Many attending did not wear masks (Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Observers consider the protest as a show of mettle by Mr al-Sadr meant to send a message to other political blocs that on Iraq’s streets, the cleric still has clout.

Iraq’s prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called for elections to take place next June, a year earlier than expected.

That was a key demand of anti-government protesters who paralysed Iraq’s streets when tens of thousands demonstrated last October.

The elections will take place under a new law approved by politicians this year that theoretically will enable more independent candidates to run.

Iraq’s electoral commission has said it is prepared to hold early elections on time if the government allocates a budget for the vote.

PA


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