Thousands of supporters of Iraq's powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr stepped up their pressure tactics Friday with a weekly prayer session in the high-security Green Zone they have occupied for three weeks.
Tensions in the impoverished, war-scarred country have escalated over the inability of political factions to agree on formation of a government, 10 months after parliamentary elections.
Sadr once led an anti-US militia and has millions of devoted followers. Some of them stormed Iraq's parliament late last month and began a sit-in, first inside the building and then on its grounds where thousands remain.
More recently their opponents from a pro-Iran bloc, the Coordination Framework, began their own sit-in on an avenue leading to the Green Zone which houses government institutions and foreign embassies.
"Yes! Yes to Moqtada!" the cleric's followers chanted as the prayers began under a blazing sun.
Sadr did not attend.
Neither was he present Wednesday when caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi met party and other leaders to discuss the political deadlock, which ordinary Iraqis see as having nothing to do with their daily struggles.
Nearly two decades after a US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, the country is blighted by endemic corruption, ailing infrastructure, power cuts, and unemployment.
Sadr wants parliament dissolved to pave the way for new elections, and his followers see him as a champion of the anti-corruption fight.
Their opponents in the Framework seek a transitional government before new polls.
The Coordination Framework comprises former paramilitaries of the Tehran-backed Hashed al-Shaabi network, and the party of former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, a longtime Sadr foe.
Maliki was among those who attended the talks on Wednesday, when political leaders agreed to work on a roadmap aimed at ending the impasse which has left the country without a new prime minister or president.
Mohaned al-Moussaoui, who is close to Sadr, said during his Friday sermon that the "political dialogue is only in the name of your political interests and supporters, and not in the interest of the people."