At least two people have been killed and scores injured during protests by angry supporters of influential Shia leader Moqtada Sadr in Iraq. Sadr supporters stormed a government building on Monday after the cleric surprisingly announced his “final” retirement from politics.
Shots were fired in the heavily secured government and embassy district, an AFP reporter reported. The office of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kasimi is located in the building. The army imposed a nationwide curfew.
According to doctors, 12 Sadr supporters were killed and dozens more injured in clashes in the government district. According to eyewitnesses, Sadr supporters and supporters of a rival Shia group exchanged fire.
The army used tear gas. 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.
“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 in the government palace rooms. The military imposed a curfew.
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.
For the time being, al-Sadr has given up his attempt to reform the political system in Iraq with the help of parliament. 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, 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.