Iraqi security forces fire tear gas on the followers of Shiite cleric Sadr inside the government Palace, Baghdad, on Aug. 29, 2022. Image Credit: AP

Baghdad: Influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr announced Monday he would resign from Iraqi politics, prompting hundreds of his angry followers to storm the government palace and sparking violent clashes with security forces in which at least 15 protesters were killed.

Medical sources revealed the revised toll early Tuesday UAE time.

Some 350 protesters have been injured, some by bullets and others by inhaling tear gas, in the chaos that has enveloped the highly secured area in the centre of Iraq's capital hosting government institutions and embassies.

Iraq’s military announced a nationwide curfew and the caretaker premier suspended Cabinet sessions in response to the violence.

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Supporters of Iraqi populist leader Moqtada Sadr protest inside the Republican Palace in Green Zone, in Baghdad, on August 29, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Iraq’s government has been deadlocked since Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in October parliamentary elections but not enough to secure a majority government. His refusal to negotiate with his Iran-backed Shiite rivals and subsequent exit from the talks has catapulted the country into political uncertainty and volatility amid intensifying intra-Shiite wrangling.

To further his political interests Sadr has wrapped his rhetoric with a nationalist and reform agenda that resonates powerfully among his broad grassroots base who hail from Iraq’s poorest sectors of society and have historically been shut out from the political system. They are calling 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 pulled down the cement barriers outside the government palace with ropes and breached the palace gates. Many rushed into the lavish salons and marbled halls of the palace, a key meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.

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Supporters of Sadr swim as they protest inside the Republican Palace in the Green Zone, in Baghdad. Image Credit: Reuters

An Associated Press photographer heard gunshots being fired and saw several protesters bleeding and being carried away. A senior medical official confirmed at least three protesters were killed by gunfire.

Protests also broke out in the Shiite-majority southern provinces with al-Sadr’s supporters burning tires and blocking road in the oil-rich province of Basra and hundreds demonstrating outside the governorate building in Missan.

Iran considers intra-Shiite disharmony as a threat against its influence in Iraq and has repeatedly attempted to broker dialogue with Sadr.

In July, Sadr’s supporters broke into the parliament to deter his rivals in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of mostly Iran-aligned Shiite parties, from forming a government. Hundreds have been staging a sit-in outside the building for over four weeks. His bloc has also resigned from parliament. The Framework is led by Sadr’s chief nemesis, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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This is not the first time Sadr, who has called for early elections and the dissolution of parliament, has announced his retirement from politics — and many dismissed the latest move as another bluff to gain greater leverage against his rivals amid a worsening stalemate. The cleric has used the tactic on previous occasions when political developments did not go his way.

But many are concerned that it’s a risky gambit and are worried how it will impact Iraq’s fragile political climate. By stepping out of the political process, Sadr is giving his followers, most disenfranchised from the political system, the green light to act as they see fit.

Sadr derives his political power from a large grassroots following, but he also commands a militia. He also maintains a great degree of influence within Iraq’s state institutions through the appointments of key civil servant positions. His Iran-backed rivals also have militia groups.

Iraq’s military swiftly announced a nation-wide curfew beginning at 7pm. It called on the cleric’s supporters to withdraw immediately from the heavily fortified government zone and to practice self-restraint “to prevent clashes or the spilling of Iraqi blood,’’ according to a statement.

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“The security forces affirm their responsibility to protect government institutions, international missions, public and private properties,’’ the statement said.

Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi demanded that Sadr call on his followers to withdraw from government institutions. He also announced Cabinet meetings would be suspended.

The cleric announced his withdrawal from politics in a tweet, and ordered the closure of his party 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 demonstrators to vacate all government buildings to allow the caretaker government to continue running the state.

It urged all to remain peaceful and “refrain from acts that could lead to an unstoppable chain of events.’’ “The very survival of the state is at stake,’’ the statement said.

Sadr’s announcement on Monday appeared to be in part a reaction to the retirement of Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim Al Haeri, who counts many of Sadr’s supporters as followers.

The previous day, Al Haeri announced he would be stepping down as a religious authority for health reasons and called on his followers to throw their allegiance behind Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rather than the Shiite spiritual center in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf.

The move was a blow to Sadr. In his statement he said Al Haeri’s stepping down “was not out of his own volition.’’

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Millions of followers

His supporters have been calling for parliament to be dissolved and for new elections, but on Saturday he said it is “more important” that “all parties and figures who have been part of the political process” since the 2003 US-led invasion “no longer participate”.

“That includes the Sadrist movement,” he said, adding that he was willing to sign an agreement to that effect “within 72 hours”.

Over the years, the chameleon-like Sadr has taken various positions and then reversed them.

Sadr’s supporters have for weeks been staging a sit-in outside Iraq’s parliament, after initially storming the legislature’s interior on July 30, to press their demands.

They were angered after the Coordination Framework nominated a candidate they saw as unacceptable for prime minister.

The Framework wants a new head of government to be appointed before any new polls are held.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi earlier this month convened crisis talks with party leaders, but the Sadrists boycotted.

Iraqis say the political infighting has nothing to do with their day-to-day struggles.

Iraq has been ravaged by decades of conflict and endemic corruption. Oil-rich but blighted by ailing infrastructure, unemployment, power cuts and crumbling public services, Iraq now also faces water shortages as drought ravages swathes of the country.

As a result of past deals, the Sadrists have representatives at the highest levels of government ministries and have been accused by their opponents of being as corrupt as other political forces.

But supporters of Sadr view him as a champion of the anti-corruption fight.

Iraq’s nearly year-long political stalemate
Here is a timeline of the main developments since elections in October last year, as rival Shiite factions jostle for power and political deadlock leaves Iraq without a new government, prime minister or head of state.
Early elections: On October 10, 2021, Iraqi holds early parliamentary elections to try to defuse youth-led protests that broke out in late 2019 over corruption and crumbling public services.
Sadr’s political movement, which was already the biggest in parliament and campaigned on a nationalist, anti-corruption agenda, increases its seat tally according to preliminary results, in an vote marred by low turnout.
His rivals in the pro-Iranian Fatah alliance, representing the former paramilitary alliance Hashed Al Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces), suffer sharp losses. They reject the results, calling them a “scam”.
PM assassination attempt: The election outcome sparks weeks of tensions.
Hashed supporters stage a sit-in at one of the entrances to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, home to government buildings and foreign embassies.
On November 5, one demonstrator is shot dead in clashes between security forces and several hundred supporters of pro-Iranian groups.
On the night of November 6, outgoing Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhemi escapes unharmed after an assassination attempt at his Green Zone residence, which is attacked by an explosives-packed drone.
No group claims responsibility for the attack.
Political wrangling: Amid the protests, Iraq’s political parties attempt to form a government.
The main Shiite parties traditionally form a coalition, irrespective of how many parliamentary seats each has won.
Instead, Sadr infuriates his Shiite rivals by insisting on trying to form a “majority government” with his movement’s Sunni and Kurdish allies.
Final vote results: On November 30, the final election results confirm the Sadrists’ victory, with the bloc winning 73 out of 329 parliamentary seats, compared with 17 for the Fatah alliance, down from 48 in the outgoing assembly.
Stormy first parliamentary session: On January 9, 2022, the new parliament elects Sunni speaker Mohammad Al Halbussi, in a stormy first session at which rivals harangue each other over the election result.
The parliamentary vote is boycotted by the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, which draws together the Fatah alliance and lawmakers from the party of Sadr’s longtime foe, ex-prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.
No new president: Parliament holds three failed attempts to elect a new Iraqi president between February 7 and March 30.
The largely ceremonial role conventionally goes to a member of Iraq’s Kurdish minority.
The president’s election is usually the first step in the formation of a new administration, before the designation of a prime minister and the creation of a new government.
Pro-Sadr MPs resign: On June 10, all 73 pro-Sadr MPs resign in order to pressure their rivals to fast-track the formation of a government.
Their seats go to the candidates who arrived in second place.
On June 23, 64 new MPs are sworn in, making the pro-Iran bloc the biggest in parliament.
PM nomination: On July 25, the Coordination Framework nominates former minister Mohammad Shia Al Sudani, 52, for prime minister.
Storming of parliament: Outraged by Al Sudani’s nomination, Sadr supporters breach the Green Zone on July 27 and stage a brief sit-in in parliament.
Three days later, they return in their thousands and again breach the Green Zone and storm parliament, this time vowing to stay “until further notice”.
They later move their protest to outside the building.
On August 12, supporters of the Coordination Framework begin their own sit-in near the Green Zone, calling for the swift formation of a new government.
Sadr bows out: On August 17, Sadr boycotts crisis talks called by the caretaker prime minister.
Ten days later, he proposes “all parties” including his own should give up government positions in order to help resolve the crisis.
On Monday, he announces on Twitter his “definitive retirement” from politics, adding that “all the institutions” linked to his Sadrist movement will be closed.