After two days of violent protests that left more than 20 dead, supporters of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr began leaving the government district in Baghdad on Tuesday. In a speech at his headquarters, Sadr had previously urged his supporters to evacuate the so-called Green Zone in the heart of the capital within 60 minutes.
Sadr apologized to the “Iraqi people” who “are the only ones affected by the incidents”.
Shortly after Sadr’s speech, broadcast live on Iraqi television, his supporters left the Green Zone, where most government buildings and other state institutions are located, AFP journalists observed.
A few minutes later, the Iraqi army lifted a curfew that had been declared on Monday. In his speech, Sadr announced that he would “repudiate” those of his followers who opposed his request.
According to rescue workers, at least 23 people were killed and 380 others injured in the clashes that broke out on Monday. Some of the people have gunshot wounds, others have inhaled tear gas.
AFP journalists reported that as of Tuesday morning, automatic weapon fire and rocket fire could still be heard from the green zone throughout Baghdad.
Clashes between thousands of Sadr supporters, the Iraqi army and supporters of a rival Iran-aligned Shia group began after Sadr announced his political withdrawal. As a result, thousands of his supporters occupied a government building in Baghdad’s Green Zone. On Tuesday, on Sadr’s orders, they began their retreat.
Several rockets also reportedly fell in the Green Zone during the night. Videos on social networks are said to show that the missile defense system (C-Ram) to protect the US embassy was then activated.
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said there was fighting in the area around his embassy. The employees had been evacuated and would work temporarily from the German embassy. The situation in Iraq is “very tense” and changing rapidly, Hoekstra wrote on Twitter.
Iraqi forces fired shots and tear gas to evict protesters from the government palace on Monday. The office of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kasimi is located in the building. The army imposed a nationwide curfew.
The UN mission in Iraq (Unami) spoke of an “extremely dangerous escalation” and called on the demonstrators to leave the government district immediately. “The survival of the state is at stake,” the UN mission said. According to media reports, the Iraqi Prime Minister declared a national holiday for Tuesday so that people do not have to go to work.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concern about the protests. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York that he called for calm and restraint and appealed to all relevant actors to take immediate steps to de-escalate and avoid any violence. All parties and actors should overcome their differences and, without further delay, engage in peaceful and comprehensive dialogue on a constructive path forward.
According to media reports, Moqtada al-Sadr himself has announced a hunger strike until the violence stops. In addition, the use of weapons must be ended, the state news agency INA and state television reported late Monday evening. There was no confirmation from Al-Sadr’s office.
“I had decided not to interfere in political affairs, but now I am announcing my final retirement and the closure of all facilities,” Al-Sadr said on Twitter on Monday. Religious institutions directly associated with him are excluded. “If I die or am killed, I ask for your prayers.”
Less than two hours after the announcement, demonstrators flocked to the Green Zone, which was actually heavily secured. Some carried photos of al-Sadr. “This is a people’s revolution, not a Sadrist movement,” some shouted.
Others called for the “overthrow of the regime”. The protesters removed barriers while security forces tried to disperse the crowd with water cannons. Videos soon showed a cheering crowd inside the government palace rooms. According to media reports, the Dutch Embassy evacuated its employees from the Green Zone and brought them to the German Embassy.
Iraq has been in a deep political crisis for months. After the parliamentary elections around ten months ago, this had become more and more acute. Al-Sadr’s movement emerged as the clear victor at the time, but failed to secure the important two-thirds majority required for the presidential election. A new government can only be formed with the support of the head of state. This created a political stalemate.
Al-Sadr has thus given up his attempt to reform the political system in Iraq with the help of parliament for the time being. After the fall of long-term dictator Saddam Hussein, the USA introduced a system of proportional representation, according to which the president is always a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite and the speaker of the parliament a Sunni. In addition, al-Sadr wanted to curb the influence of Shiite parties supported by Iran.
With “pressure from the streets” and a storming of parliament, the al-Sadr movement finally wanted to prevent its political opponents around former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who have close ties to Iran, from being able to form a government.
Most recently, the 48-year-old religious leader had called for new elections. His rivals, meanwhile, have put forward their own prime ministerial candidate, which al-Sadr opposes because of his closeness to al-Maliki.
Following the announcement of his resignation, supporters of al-Sadr spilled onto the streets of central Baghdad and besieged the cabinet building before finally storming the government palace.
Al-Sadr had already announced in 2014 that he would withdraw from politics – two and a half months before the parliamentary elections planned at the time. He also announced that he would close all of his movement’s offices. “In the future I will no longer interfere in political affairs and there will no longer be a parliamentary group or a member of the government who will speak on my behalf,” he said at the time.