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Iraq: Sadrists project strength in mass prayer - but the man himself is a no show

Sources claim 1.5 million supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr pray in Baghdad streets, with some disappointed their leader could not join them
Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gather for mass Friday prayer in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq 15 July 2022 (MEE)

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr filled the streets of Baghdad for a mass prayer on Friday in a show of force, but the influential Shia cleric confounded expectations and did not appear in person.

The public display was ostensibly organised by Sadr to honour the memory of his late father Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, although it has been widely perceived as an attempt to demonstrate how much support he retains following a public withdrawal from politics after failing to form a government.

In a statement on Twitter on Friday, Sadr said he thanked God for the "great victory" of the gathering and asked that "everyone return safely as soon as possible".

Prayers took place in Sadr City, the impoverished east Baghdad district that is one of his biggest strongholds. Security sources and eyewitnesses told Middle East Eye that around 1.5 million supporters took part. 

Three Sadirist activists who attended the prayer told MEE that they wished to see Sadr, but they also had expected him not to show up. It is widely believed that Sadr didn't show up for security reasons.

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Shiekh Mahmoud al-Jaiashi, one of Sadr's top aides, delivered the Friday sermon.

However, Jaiashi also read a letter from Sadr, in which the cleric said that if political parties want to form a government, "they should abide in taking the occupation [out of Iraq] in diplomatic and parliamentarian ways".

"The political blocs, the Shia ones in particular, should repent. The first step to repentance is to hold the corrupt ones accountable without hesitation," Sadr said in his letter.

On Thursday, Sadr tweeted that he would remain adamant in supporting "reform" and would avoid "sedition". He also said that he might send someone on his behalf to attend the Friday sermon.

On Friday morning, Iraqi armed forces put in place strict security measures in Baghdad and deployed additional forces in the eastern regions of the city.

Iraqi Defence Minister Jumaa Inad and Deputy Commander of Joint Operations Lieutenant-General Abdul-Amir al-Shammari supervised the plan to secure worshipers, security authorities said.

Sadr's Sairoon Alliance won 73 seats of the total 329 in the Iraqi parliament in the October election, becoming the biggest party.

However, Sadr had failed to form a majority government with Sunni and Kurdish parties. In June, his party members withdrew from the parliament in reaction to being repeatedly blocked by his Iranian-backed rivals in the Coordination Framework alliance.

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