An influential Shia cleric announced on Monday that he would resign from Iraqi politics, prompting hundreds of his angry supporters to storm the government palace and sparking violent clashes with security forces in which at least three protesters were killed.
Medical officials said at least 15 protesters suffered gunshot wounds and a dozen more were injured by tear gas and physical altercations with riot police during demonstrations following the announcement of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Iraqi military announced a nationwide curfew and the interim prime minister suspended Cabinet sessions in response to the violence.
Iraq’s government has been deadlocked since al-Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in October’s parliamentary elections, but not enough to secure a majority government. His refusal to negotiate with Shia rivals backed by Iran and his subsequent exit from the talks catapulted the country into political uncertainty and volatility amid escalating intra-Shia feuds.
To advance his political interests, al-Sadr has enveloped his rhetoric with a nationalist and reformist agenda that resonates powerfully among his broad popular base who hail from the poorer sectors of Iraqi society and have historically been excluded from the political system. They call for the dissolution of parliament and early elections without the participation of Iran-backed groups, which they see as responsible for the status quo.
During Monday’s violence, hundreds of protesters tore down the cement barriers outside the government palace with ropes and broke through the palace gates. Many rushed to the palatial salons and marble halls of the palace, a key meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.
An Associated Press photographer heard gunshots and saw several protesters bleeding and being carried away. A senior medical official confirmed that at least three protesters were shot and killed.
Demonstrations also erupted in the Shia-majority southern provinces, with al-Sadr supporters burning tires and blocking roads in the oil-rich province of Basra and hundreds protesting outside the Missan governorate building.
Iran views intra-Shia disagreement as a threat to its influence in Iraq and has repeatedly attempted to broker dialogue with al-Sadr.
In July, al-Sadr supporters stormed into parliament to dissuade his rivals from the Coordination Framework, an alliance of mostly Iran-aligned Shiite parties, from forming a government. Hundreds of people have been staging a sit-in outside the building for more than four weeks. His bloc also resigned from parliament. The Cadre is led by al-Sadr’s nemesis, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It is not the first time that al-Sadr, who has called for a snap election and the dissolution of parliament, has announced his retirement from politics – and many have dismissed the latest move as another bluff to win over weight against rivals in a worsening stalemate. The cleric has used the tactic on previous occasions when political developments did not go his way.
But many fear it is a risky gamble and worry about its impact on Iraq’s fragile political climate. By withdrawing from the political process, al-Sadr is giving his supporters, the most disenfranchised of the political system, the green light to act as they see fit.
Al-Sadr derives his political power from a large popular following, but he also commands a militia. He also maintains great influence within Iraqi state institutions through appointments to key civil servant positions. Its Iranian-backed rivals also have militias.
The Iraqi army quickly announced a nationwide curfew starting at 7 p.m. She called on the cleric’s supporters to immediately withdraw from the heavily fortified government area and exercise restraint “to avoid clashes or Iraqi bloodshed”, according to a statement. .
“Security forces affirm their responsibility to protect government institutions, international missions, public and private property,” the statement said.
Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi demanded that al-Sadr call on his supporters to step down from government institutions. He also announced that Cabinet meetings would be suspended.
The cleric announced his retirement from politics in a tweet and ordered the closure of his party’s offices. Religious and cultural institutions will remain open.
The UN mission in Iraq said Monday’s protests were an “extremely dangerous escalation” and called on protesters to evacuate all government buildings to allow the caretaker government to continue running the state.
He urged everyone to remain peaceful and “refrain from actions that could lead to an unstoppable chain of events”. “The very survival of the state is at stake,” the statement said.
Al-Sadr’s announcement on Monday appears to be partly a reaction to the retirement of Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, who counts many of al-Sadr’s supporters among his followers.
A day earlier, al-Haeri announced he would step down as a religious leader for health reasons and called on his followers to pledge allegiance to Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rather than the holy city’s Shia spiritual center Iraqi Najaf.
This decision was a blow for al-Sadr. In his statement, he said al-Haeri’s resignation “was not of his own volition”.