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Fri. 8:56 a.m.: Hundreds of thousands gather for mass prayer in Baghdad

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather during an open-air Friday prayers today at Grand Festivities Square within the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis heeded the call of an influential Shiite cleric to gather in a show of strength for a mass prayer in the heart of Baghdad’s government zone today. The gathering took place amid an escalating political crisis that has put the country’s capital on edge.

The powerful cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, had called on his followers from across Iraq to come to pray inside Baghdad’s Green Zone — a heavily fortified area in the heart of the city that houses government buildings and foreign embassies. They arrived and stood outside in the scorching summer heat, with temperatures reaching 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit).

Meanwhile, in the holy southern city of Najaf, the head of Iraq’s U.N. mission, Jeannine Hennis-Plasschaert, met with al-Sadr today. She told reporters afterward that they discussed the importance of finding a solution to the political crisis.

Today’s mass prayer was the latest display of strength by the cleric, whose political power derives from his strong grassroots support base. The crowds stretched for miles, spilling into the streets outside the square.

Several people fainted after waiting for hours for the prayer to start and were taken to hospital in ambulances.

Al-Sadr has used his large grassroots following as a pressure tactic against his rivals after his party was unable to form a government despite having won the largest number of seats in federal elections last October. He abandoned efforts to form the next government in June.

His followers gathered facing the Victory Arch, a monument erected during Saddam Hussein’s regime to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war and for holding military parades.

Farid Jaafar, 16, arrived from southern Babylon province to show his support for al-Sadr. His transport was paid by al-Sadr’s party. “I love Muqtada,” he said.

Holding the prayer within the highly restrictive zone closed off to most Iraqis points to the cleric’s power and influence.

Last Saturday, thousands of his followers stormed parliament in a bid to derail attempts by al-Sadr’s Shiite rivals to form a government. Around 125 people were injured in the violence, most of them protesters and 25 members of the security forces.

Al-Sadr’s followers camped out inside the parliament until he ordered them, after four days, to withdraw from the assembly building but maintain a sit-in outside. He’s calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections.

Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, an ally of al-Sadr, signaled his support for early elections, saying the clerics calls and those of his supporters “can not be neglected.”

“We are in support of moving forward with parliamentary and local elections within an agreed upon time,” he said, in a statement.

Al-Sadr’s Shiite rivals in the Iran-backed Coordination Framework have said they would consider holding early elections in the event of a national consensus.

After today’s prayer, many demonstrators returned to the sit-in site outside parliament.

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