BAGHDAD (Associated Press) – An influential Shiite cleric announced Monday that he will resign from Iraqi politics, prompting hundreds of angry followers to storm the government palace and spark clashes with security forces and between rival militias. At least 15 protesters were killed.
The demonstrators loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr removed the concrete barriers outside the government palace with ropes and breached the palace gates. Many flocked to the opulent salons and marble halls of the palace, a major meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.
The Iraqi military declared a nationwide curfew, and the interim prime minister suspended cabinet sessions in response to the violence. Medical officials said dozens of protesters were injured by tear gas and physical altercations with riot police.
As night fell, a militia loyal to Sadr clashed with the security of the Popular Mobilization Forces inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government, wounding at least one woman, according to security officials. Officials said he heard several mortar shells.
The rumble of machine-gun fire continued and reverberated throughout central Baghdad.
The Popular Mobilization Forces are an umbrella group of state-backed paramilitary groups, the most powerful of which are allied with Sadr’s opponents in the Iran-backed political camp.
Security officials said mortars and rocket-propelled grenades were used in the clashes at the height of the intractable political stalemate between the two rival camps.
The Iraqi government has been deadlocked since Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in parliamentary elections in October, but not enough to secure a majority government. His refusal to negotiate with his Iranian-backed Shiite opponents and subsequent exit from the talks have plunged the country into political uncertainty and instability amid escalating intra-Shia differences.
The Muslim majority in Iraq is divided into two sects, Shiites and Sunnis. Shiites under Saddam Hussein remained persecuted until the US-led invasion overturned the political system. Now the Shiites are fighting among themselves, with the dispute centering on power and state resources but also influence over the Shiite street.
To advance his political interests, al-Sadr wrapped his speech with a nationalist and reformist agenda that resonated powerfully among his broad base of supporters who hail from the poorest sectors of society in Iraq and who have been historically excluded from the political system.
Many were early followers of his father, a respected figure in Shiite Islam. They are demanding 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, a militia allied with Sadr, gathered in the capital’s Tahrir Square to “protect” protesters, one of its leaders said.
An Associated Press photographer heard the shooting in the capital and saw several protesters bleeding and being led away. It was not immediately clear who fired the shots.
A senior medical official confirmed that at least 10 protesters were killed by gunfire. The number was also confirmed by the Sadrist movement’s media office, which provided a list of 10 names.
Iraq’s interim prime minister said he would open an investigation into the shooting and said the use of live ammunition against protesters was prohibited.
Protests also erupted in the Shiite-majority southern provinces, with al-Sadr supporters burning tires and blocking roads in the oil-rich Basra province and hundreds demonstrated outside the province’s building in Maysan.
Iran views intra-Shia disharmony as a threat to its influence in Iraq and has repeatedly tried to mediate dialogue with Sadr.
In July, Sadr’s supporters stormed the parliament building To deter rivals under the coordination, a coalition of Shiite parties mostly allied with Iran, from forming a government. Hundreds have camped outside the building for more than four weeks. His bloc also resigned from Parliament. The framework is led by Sadr’s main enemy, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
It is not the first time that Sadr, who has called for snap elections and the dissolution of parliament, has announced his retirement from politics – and many dismissed Monday’s move as another ploy to gain greater influence against his rivals amid a deepening stalemate.. The cleric used this tactic on previous occasions when political developments did not go his way.
But many worry that it is a risky gambit and worry about how it will affect Iraq’s fragile political climate. By exiting the political process, al-Sadr is giving his followers, who are most disenfranchised by the political system, the green light to act as they see fit.
Al-Sadr also leads a militia and maintains a significant degree of influence within Iraqi state institutions through appointments to key positions in the civil service. His Iranian-backed opponents also have armed groups.
The Iraqi military promptly announced a nationwide curfew starting at 7 p.m. and called on the cleric’s supporters to immediately withdraw from the heavily fortified government zone and exercise restraint “to prevent clashes or Iraqi bloodshed,” according to the statement.
“The security forces affirm their responsibility to protect government institutions, international missions, and public and private property,” the statement said.
Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazimi al-Sadr also called on his followers to withdraw from government institutions.
The United Nations mission in Iraq said Monday’s protests were a “very dangerous escalation”, and called on protesters to evacuate all government buildings to allow the interim government to continue running the country.
He urged everyone to remain peaceful and to “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 withdrawal from politics in a tweet, and ordered the closure of his party’s offices. She added that religious and cultural institutions would remain open.
The real motives behind al-Sadr’s announcement appeared to be a reaction to the retirement of Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Kazem al-Hairi, whom many al-Sadr supporters regard as followers.
In a surprise announcement on Sunday, Haeri said he was stepping down as a religious authority for health reasons, and called on his followers to cast their allegiance behind Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rather than the Shiite spiritual center in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf.
The move was a blow to Sadr, who despite his ambitions to become a religious authority lacks the academic qualifications to be an ayatollah. Al-Hairi, who resides in the Iranian holy city of Qom, once granted him the legitimacy he lacks by appointing al-Sadr as his representative in Iraq. He broke off relations soon after with the clergyman, but continued to enjoy the support of his followers.
By calling on his followers to side with Khamenei, Haeri caused a legitimacy crisis for Sadr.
Al-Sadr said in a tweet to him on Twitter that Al-Hairi’s stepping down “was not of his own free will.”