Iraq's top judicial body said Sunday it doesn't have the authority to dissolve the country's parliament, days after an influential Shiite cleric gave it one week to dismiss the legislature so that new elections can be held.
The decision by the Supreme Judicial Council is likely to increase tensions between followers of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and members of Iran-backed groups as Iraq sinks deeper into its political impasse, now in its 10th month. The impasse is the longest in the country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion reset the political order.
The Supreme Judicial Council said in a statement after a meeting Sunday that political groups in the country should not get the judiciary involved in their "rivalries and political competition."
Al-Sadr, whose supporters earlier this month stormed the parliament in Baghdad and have since held a sit-in outside the building, tweeted on Wednesday that the judiciary has one week to dissolve the legislature. Al-Sadr has previously demanded that the parliament be dissolved and that early elections be held but this time he set a deadline.
Al-Sadr's political bloc won the largest number of seats in parliament but failed to form a majority government that excluded his Iran-aligned rivals. He called on his followers Saturday night to be ready to hold massive protests all over Iraq raising concerns of tensions. He did not set a date for the planned protests.
"The Supreme Judicial Council does not have the authority to dissolve parliament," the statement said, adding that its main job is to deal with legal matters and it cannot "interfere in the work of the legislative or executive authorities."
Even before Sunday's meeting of the judiciary, it had stated it does not have the constitutional right to dissolve parliament and that only lawmakers can vote to dissolve the legislature. Because the parliament has exceeded the constitutional timeline for forming a new government following the October elections, what happens next is not clear.
Al-Sadr's political rivals in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Iran-backed parties, said earlier that the parliament would have to convene to dissolve itself. On Friday, supporters of the group demonstrated in Baghdad to protest the occupation of the legislature by al-Sadr's supporters.
Earlier this month, thousands of al-Sadr's followers stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses Iraq's parliament, government buildings and foreign embassies. They overran and occupied the parliament, after which all sessions of the assembly were canceled until further notice. The takeover also effectively halted efforts by the Coordination Framework to try and form the next government after al-Sadr failed to do so.
In their takeover of parliament, al-Sadr's followers stopped short of overrunning the Supreme Judicial Council building next door — an act that many would consider a coup as the judiciary is the highest legal authority in the country.