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BAGHDAD (AP) — The four sons of Khalil Ibrahim are among thousands of followers of an influential Shiite cleric who raided last week Iraq’s parliament building was followed by a shocking sit-in outside parliament, ushering in a new era of political instability in the country.

Ibrahim, he said, was always behind them — as were nearly all of his neighbors in Sadr City, a huge area in Baghdad where millions of largely impoverished Shiites are clergy Personnel Muqtada Sadr’s Support Center.

Ibrahim, 70, told The Associated Press on Thursday that every house in the area’s concrete jungle had members participating in the sit-in. “This time we knew there was going to be a change and we were sure of that,” he said.

Sadr’s political clout comes largely from their seemingly endless support. The cleric’s remarks have sparked well-organized mass protests at various times in the past, bringing Baghdad to a standstill and disrupting the political process. Many in Sadr City have declared their loyalty to the clergy, dismissing allegations of corruption against his movement.

They were drawn to his religious rhetoric and his long-standing commitment to change and recognition for Iraq’s poorest communities.

Most people in Sadr City complained about the lack of basic services, including electricity in the hot summer months when temperatures soared above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) on Thursday. Most of the people who spoke to The Associated Press did not finish school, while those who did interview said they could not find a job.

They occupied parliament on Saturday before withdrawing from a sit-in outside the building, fueled by calls for protest from Sadr’s party. Their gathering prevented Sadr’s Iran-backed political opponents from advancing government formation. Sadr, whose party won the most seats in recent elections, has been demanding a majority government that can squeeze out these rivals.

The stalemate extends an unprecedented political stalemate since the federal election 10 months ago.

The cleric has appealed to his followers to act by sparking powerful religious unions, especially by evoking the sacrifice of Imam Hussein, a revered figure in Shiite Islam. He also took advantage of Sadr City’s long history as a centre for mass social demonstrations, where oppressive and revolutionary sentiments were entrenched.

This history dates back to the founding of the region in 1958, shortly after the overthrow of the monarchy by Abdel Karim Qassim.

Qasim, then known as Revolution City, built settlements for immigrants from southern Iraq, many of whom were violently dispossessed of their land and suffered extreme poverty. Over the next few decades, its five original divisions will grow to 100 divisions with 2.5 million inhabitants.

In Iraq’s turbulent modern history, promises to develop the region have never been fulfilled.

With successive regime changes, the area was neglected and created an urban underclass isolated from the rest of Baghdad society. Under Saddam Hussein, the region became a center of Shiite resistance. After the US-led invasion in 2003, it was renamed Sadr City after Sadr’s father.

In his speech on Wednesday, Sadr instructed his followers to continue the sit-in and called for early elections, the dissolution of parliament and the revision of the constitution.

At Ibrahim’s house, the request was simpler. They want to own a house and find a job. Ibrahim’s sons have only informal casual workers. Ibrahim’s eldest son, 23, has not finished primary school.

There are 12 of them in total and they live in a house where rent accounts for most of their income. This remains despite Ibrahim’s life as a guard outside the Ministry of Education.

Ibrahim’s wife Hamida is desperate to own a house of her own.

“We filled out government housing applications, we filled out job applications, but nothing worked,” she said.

Just then, the power went out. “Again,” she sighed.

Sadr’s support, which extends into parts of southern Iraq, has shown signs of weakening. Although the party was the biggest vote-getter in October’s election, its total was below 1 million, fewer than in previous elections.

The party has been part of multiple governments over the years, but Sadr City has seen little improvement. Although he is portrayed as a hero with nothing, his party has a vast network of civil servant appointments in Iraqi state institutions, ready to accept bids. Contractors doing business with ministries he controls have complained of harassment and threats from his party members.

Critics accuse the cleric of using his followers as pawns by evoking the legacy of his father Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr, a well-respected Shia religious figure , was killed by Saddam’s regime in the 1990s.

In Sadr City, his supporters were quick to defend him, saying those in power were blocking his agenda.

Many say his protest calls have lifted them out of a drab life of poverty. Protest calls spread from Sadr’s party offices to tribal leaders, who pass them on to their members.

Many of the protesters who stormed parliament on Saturday said it was the first time they had seen the halls of power and they were rarely welcomed.

“I saw big buildings, beautiful rooms, and I thought ‘how could this exist in the same city I’m struggling with?'” said Mohammad Allah, a grocer in Sadr City. “Aren’t we human too?”

A portrait of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, hangs outside almost every door in Sadr City. His killing will be commemorated next Monday on Ashura, a day that Iraqis usually mark in the holy city of Karbala.

Sadr’s message was filled with references to Hussein’s sacrifice and calls to resist oppression. In his speech on Saturday, Sadr said he was against bloodshed but “reform can only be achieved through sacrifice”, citing the example of an imam.

The comparison resonated with his followers. A portrait of Imam Hussein gleamed in Ibrahim’s modest living room.

“Imam Hussein called for reform and revolution, and now our leaders are calling too,” Ibrahim said. “Of course, some people can ignore that, but we can’t.”



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