BAGHDAD (AP) — An influential Shiite cleric announced on Monday that he would resign from Iraqi politics, prompting hundreds of his angry supporters to storm the government palace and sparking clashes with security forces in which at least 10 protesters were killed.
Protesters loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr broke 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.
The Iraqi military announced a nationwide curfew and the interim prime minister suspended Cabinet sessions in response to the violence. Medical officials said at least 15 protesters suffered gunshot wounds and a dozen others were injured by tear gas and physical altercations with riot police.
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.
Iraq’s predominantly Muslim population is divided into two sects, the Shiites and the Sunnis. Under Saddam Hussein, Shiites were oppressed until the US-led invasion overthrew the political order. Now the Shiites are fighting among themselves, the dispute over power and state resources, but also influence on the Shiite street.
To further his political interests, al-Sadr has enveloped his rhetoric with a nationalist and reformist agenda that resonates powerfully among his broad base of supporters drawn from the poorest sectors of Iraqi society and historically excluded from the political system.
Many were first followers of his father, a revered figure in Shia Islam. They call for the dissolution of parliament and early elections without the participation of Iran-backed Shiite groups, which they see as responsible for the status quo.
During Monday’s clashes, Saraya Salam, an al-Sadr-aligned militia, gathered in the capital’s Tahrir Square to “protect” protesters, one of its commanders said.
An Associated Press photographer heard gunshots fired in the capital and saw several protesters bleeding and being carried away. It was not immediately clear who had fired the shots.
A senior medical official confirmed that at least 10 protesters were shot and killed. The number was also confirmed by the Sadrist Media Office, which provided a list of 10 names.
Iraq’s interim prime minister said he would open an investigation into the shootings and said the use of live ammunition against protesters was prohibited.
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, supporters of Al-Sadr stormed parliament to dissuade his rivals in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of mostly Iran-aligned Shia 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 snap elections and the dissolution of parliament, has announced his retirement from politics – and many have dismissed Monday’s decision as another bluff to win more weight against rivals in the midst of an escalating 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 also commands a militia and 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 also demanded that al-Sadr call on his supporters to step down from government institutions.
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 announced his retirement from politics in a tweet and ordered the closure of his party’s offices. Religious and cultural institutions will remain open, he added.
The real motivations behind al-Sadr’s announcement appeared to be a reaction to the retirement of Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, who counts many of al-Sadr’s supporters among his followers.
In a surprise announcement on Sunday, al-Haeri said 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 Shiite spiritual center of the Iraqi holy city of Najaf.
The move was a blow to al-Sadr, who, despite his ambitions to be a religious authority, lacks the scholarly credentials to be an ayatollah. Al-Haeri, who resides in the Iranian holy city of Qom, once gave him the legitimacy he lacked by appointing al-Sadr as his representative in Iraq. He cut ties with the Cleric soon after, but continued to enjoy the support of his followers.
By calling on his followers to side with Khamenei, al-Haeri has caused a crisis of legitimacy for al-Sadr.
In his tweet, al-Sadr said al-Haeri’s resignation “was not of his own volition”.
Qassim Abdul-zahra and Samya Kullab, The Associated Press