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Fighters from the Saraya Salam (Peace Brigades) loyal to influential Shiite Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr deploy in Baghdad. Image Credit: AP

Baghdad: First, there was anger, then protests, then a spasm of violence that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded.

Now, there’s only an uneasy and fragile calm. For the better part of two decades, Baghdad has endured strife, instability and tragedy in equal measure. But the chaos that engulfed the Iraqi capital on Monday night and Tuesday morning marked the deadliest round of violence in years.

Supporters of prominent Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr clashed with Iraqi security forces and Iran-allied militias in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and stormed the presidential palace. The sound of machine-gun fire and the thud of rocket-propelled grenades rocked the heart of the city. The violence sprawled across the country, with Sadrists attacking the offices of factions linked to Iran in various cities. More than 30 people were killed, with the death toll expected to rise at the time of writing.

But by Tuesday afternoon, Sadr called on his followers to withdraw and lamented the loss of life. For his supposed restraint, he earned the plaudits of Iraqi President Barham Salih and Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi, who has been operating in a caretaker role as Iraqi politicians have failed for almost a year to form a government.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Sadr, who in the previous decade led anti-American revolts and is a fixture in Iraqi politics, positions himself as a populist nationalist and commands significant, though by no means total, support from Iraqi Shiites. His gambit is part of an evolving intra-Shiite rivalry in the country that threatens to destabilise a frail state even further and complicates the equation for Iran’s theocratic regime, which has long exercised influence over Baghdad.

Iraq’s political dysfunction “has been a feature of civic life since the US invasion nearly two decades ago entrenched a sectarian, kleptocratic order,” wrote my Washington Post colleagues Mustafa Salim and Kareem Fahim.

“The political standoff began in October, when Sadr’s bloc won the largest number of seats in parliament but was unable to form a government after trying to exclude his Shiite rivals,” they explained. “After months of political paralysis, Sadr announced that his parliamentary candidates would resign from the legislature, and subsequently sent his followers to occupy the parliament.”

Sadr is opposed by a rival Shiite grouping, marshalled by former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki — a figure notorious in Washington for his alleged corruption and shoddy governance that enabled the rise of the Islamic State (Daesh) in 2014. The manoeuvrings of these two camps led to a fractious summer that culminated in the explosion of open conflict this week.

Stoking protests now rules of the game

Renad Mansour, an Iraq scholar at the Chatham House think tank in London, told me that stoking “violence, protests, destabilisation are the rules of the game” now in Iraqi politics, with Sadr seeking to leverage his followers’ capacity for violence as a “tool to negotiate” for greater concessions from his putative adversaries.

“Sadr has always put himself and his followers in a situation where violence and bloodshed seems inevitable, but then he always turns round and rejects the violence,” Hamdi Malik of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Reuters.

There’s little evidence that Sadr and Al Maliki, let alone a whole constellation of other actors jostling for power, will be able to settle their differences soon.

Sadr’s announcement on Monday that he was “retiring” from politics triggered the rampage of his supporters; in the aftermath of the clashes, he is hardly disappearing from the scene. “Whether dialogue will now be possible in Iraq is unsure, but the very fact that the prime minister of Iraq was compelled to commend Sadr for shutting down a conflagration he was largely responsible for is arguably an indication of how much power he has,” noted the Middle East Eye.

Sadr and his allies have called for the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. “Personally, I didn’t want to retreat,” said Mouamle Hassan, 21, a Sadr supporter who left the Green Zone carrying a rifle, to my colleagues. “We lost martyrs, but we will always obey Sadr.”

The prospect of fresh clashes looms. “The biggest loser is the state, standing idly by while two powerful armed parties continue to struggle for control,” tweeted Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based fellow for the Century Foundation, a US think tank.

“Unless a proper solution is reached, more protests and violence are possible.”

Hanging over the current tensions is a deeper malaise. In recent years, a protest movement fuelled by a generation of frustrated youth has massed against the political status quo to which Sadr belongs, but also opportunistically opposes. There’s little prospect of significant reform to satisfy their demands and deploy the nation’s vast oil wealth to better address its people’s needs.

“The system has become economically bankrupt, ideologically bankrupt and therefore it’s becoming more coercive,” Mansour said, pointing to earlier bloody crackdowns by security forces on protesters that killed hundreds and the stifling of civil society dissidents and journalists.

The system in Baghdad, of course, is a legacy of both American invasion and occupation and the overweening Iranian influence that found its way into the corridors of power after the removal of dictator Saddam Hussain. The Shiite power of the Middle East has a direct line to major factions in Iraq, including the Popular Mobilisation Forces - militias that were instrumental in the fight against Daesh but now are resented by many Iraqis as the bullying proxies of a meddling regime. In recent months, Sadr publicly fell out with Iranian officials and has stepped up his rhetoric against Tehran.

“The Iranian brand has suffered especially among the Arab youth, particularly among Shiite youth” in the region, said Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute during a Tuesday webinar. It’s a brand, she added, “of failed governance, of civil wars, of associating with groups that have killed civil society actors.”