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Iraqi Cleric Calls for Constitution, Election Changes, Deepening Political Crisis

BAGHDAD—Influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for changing Iraq’s constitution and election procedures a day after his supporters occupied its parliament building, deepening his standoff with an alliance of Iran-backed Shiite rivals.

In a statement released on Twitter, Mr. Sadr called the takeover of the parliament a “revolution” and an “opportunity for radical change” in the political process that shouldn’t be wasted.

Mr. Sadr’s demands for changes in the constitution and election laws appeared likely to intensify tensions between him and his rival for power, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In a statement, the Coalition Framework, the alliance of Iranian-backed Shiite parties aligned with Mr. Maliki, rejected Mr. Sadr’s demands, calling them “a coup against the legitimate system.”

Both sides have called for calm in recent days and have largely avoided violence. The protesters first occupied parliament last Wednesday, returning on Saturday when they announced they intend to stay until new elections are called. They haven’t displayed weapons or clashed with security forces guarding the Green Zone, as Baghdad’s heavily guarded central government area is called.

But the longer the standoff continues, the more likely the protests could escalate into violent clashes between heavily armed militia members on both sides, analysts said.

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Worries brewed that the occupation of the parliament building, which has been peaceful so far, could escalate into violence.

Photo: Anmar Khalil/Associated Press

“What Sadr is trying to do is exert maximum pressure to see how many concessions he can get out of his rivals,” said Marsin Alshamary, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. “That being said, we are on a dangerous precipice, because if he attacks or antagonizes any of the armed political parties then it’s very likely things will devolve into violence.”

Mr. Sadr repeated calls for restraint Sunday evening as hundreds more of his followers streamed into Baghdad’s Green Zone following his statement. They joined those who occupied the parliament building Saturday, denouncing Mohammed Sudani, the nominee for prime minister proposed by the Coalition Framework, as too close to Mr. Maliki. The demonstrators have vowed to remain until new elections are called.

Formation of the Iraqi government has been stalled since last October’s elections. Mr. Sadr’s supporters, who won the most seats in parliament, have been unable to negotiate an agreement with other parties to elect a prime minister.

After lengthy negotiations failed, Mr. Sadr ordered his supporters to resign from parliament last month, leaving the Coalition Framework as the bloc with the largest number of seats. Last Monday, it chose Mr. Sudani, a former government minister, as its nominee. The announcement prompted Mr. Sadr’s supporters to take over the parliament building, seeking to block formation of a government headed by Mr. Sudani.

The onetime leader of a rebellion against U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Mr. Sadr became the country’s key political power broker, capitalizing on widespread anger at corruption and growing Iranian influence in Iraq.

He didn’t say Sunday what changes he was seeking in the Iraqi constitution and electoral procedures.

But Mr. Sadr has called for ending a quota system in place since 2003 under which ministries and government posts are divided among Shia, Sunni and Kurd parties. But his efforts to bring down the system have run into fierce opposition from his rivals, who fear the dismantling of patronage networks that sustain their wealth and influence.

Mr. Sadr’s supporters have benefited over the years by receiving jobs in ministries apportioned to them under the current system. He also has close ties to Iran, raising questions about how far he would go to remove Iran’s influence over Iraq if his supporters take power. His supporters also took over parliament in 2016, but withdrew after Mr. Sadr told them to without achieving major reforms.

Ms. Alshamary said Mr. Sadr isn’t likely to achieve a complete overhaul of election laws or changes in the constitution that before last October’s elections have allowed major Shia, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs to preserve their hold on power and divide up major posts and ministries.

Mr. Sadr is “enunciating maximalist goals” but likely “settling for a lot less than that, maybe not even new elections.”

In an interview Sunday, Ali al-Fatlawi, a member of parliament from the Coalition Framework, played down Mr. Sadr’s call for sweeping changes in Iraq’s political system.

“Sadr is the leader of a certain group only,” he said. “The Shiite population is big and belongs to different groups.”

But Shashwar Abdul Wahid, head of the New Generation, a Kurdish political party, called for Kurds in Iraq’s north to join Mr. Sadr’s protests calling for overhauling the constitution and election laws. “We want protests in Kurdistan similar to Sadr’s protests,” he said in a statement. Mr. Wahid is an independent politician, not associated with main Kurdish parties, who face their own allegations about corruption and have been largely silent about Mr. Sadr’s protests.

Write to David S. Cloud at david.cloud@wsj.com

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