Influential Iraqi cleric quits politics, sparking deadly protests

Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced Monday that he would resign from Iraqi politics, prompting hundreds of his angry followers to storm the government palace. At least 10 protesters were killed in clashes with security forces and between rival militias.

Loyalists of Muqtada al-Sadr stormed a government complex following announcement, leaving at least 10 dead

Muqtada al-Sadr loyalists storm Iraqi cabinet headquarters after cleric resigns

3 months ago
Duration 0:54
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced Monday he will withdraw from politics, prompting supporters who had already been staging sit-ins to storm the palatial headquarters of the Iraqi government and even jump into the palace pool.

At least 10 Iraqis were killed on Monday after powerful Shia Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said he would quit politics, prompting his loyalists to storm a palatial government complex in Baghdad and leading to clashes with rival Shia groups.

As night fell, machine-gun fire and explosions rang out, with tracer fire rising into the sky above the Green Zone that houses government headquarters and foreign embassies, in the worst fighting the Iraqi capital has seen in years.

It followed a day of violence prompted by Sadr's announcement that he would withdraw from all political activity — a decision he said was in response to the failure of other Shi'ite leaders and parties to reform a corrupt and decaying governing system.

Sadr later said he was staging a hunger strike in protest against the use of weapons by all sides.

In addition to the 10 people killed, several dozen were injured, police and medical workers said.

Medium shot of man wearing black garments and head covering, in front of Iraqi flag.
Al-Sadr, seen here Aug. 3, said on Monday that he would withdraw from politics, prompting his loyalists to storm a government complex. Ten Iraqis died in the resulting clashes. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

"I hereby announce my final withdrawal," Sadr had announced earlier on Twitter, criticizing fellow Shia political leaders for failing to heed his calls for reform.

The clashes erupted hours after that declaration, prompting his supporters, who had already been staging a weeks-long sit-in at parliament in the Green Zone, to demonstrate and storm the main cabinet headquarters. Some jumped into a swimming pool at the palace, cheering and waving flags.

Iraq's military declared an open-ended nationwide curfew and urged the protesters to leave the Green Zone.

A group of a couple dozen protesters in a pool , one holding up a photo of Muqtada al-Sadr.
Some of al-Sadr's supporters jumped into the palace swimming pool after breaching the Baghdad complex that serves as government headquarters. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

Sadr has called for dissolution of parliament

During the stalemate over forming a new government, Sadr has galvanized his legions of backers, throwing into disarray Iraq's effort to recover from decades of conflict and sanctions and its bid to tackle sectarian strife and rampant corruption.

Sadr, who has drawn broad support by opposing both U.S. and Iranian influence on Iraqi politics, was the biggest winner from an October election but withdrew all his lawmakers from parliament in June after he failed to form a government that excluded his rivals, mostly Tehran-backed Shia parties.

Sadr has insisted on early elections and the dissolution of parliament. He says no politician who has been in power since the U.S. invasion in 2003 can hold office.

In Monday's announcement, Sadr said he would close his offices, without giving details, although he said cultural and religious institutions would remain open.

Sadr's decision ramped up dangerous tensions among heavily armed Shia groups. Many Iraqis worry that moves by each Shia camp could lead to new civil conflict.

"The [Iran] loyalists came and burned the tents of Sadrists, and attacked protesters," said Kadhim Haitham, a supporter of Sadr.

A group of men inside a government complex building, including one in the middle holding a flag in one hand and flashing a peace sign in the other.
Supporters of al-Sadr enter the Government Palace during a demonstration in Baghdad. The chaos Monday sparked fears that violence could erupt in a country already beset by its worst political crisis in years. (Hadi Mizban/The Associated Press)

Iraq's longest run without government

Pro-Iran groups blamed the Sadrists for the clashes and denied having shot at anyone. "It's not true. If our people had guns why would they need to throw rocks?" said one militia member, who declined to be identified by name.

Sadr has withdrawn from politics and the government in the past and has also disbanded militias loyal to him. But he retains widespread influence over state institutions and controls a paramilitary group with thousands of members.

He has often returned to political activity after similar announcements, although the current deadlock in Iraq appears harder to resolve than previous periods of dysfunction.

The current impasse between Sadr and Shia rivals has given Iraq its longest run without a government.

Supporters of the mercurial cleric first stormed the Green Zone in July. Since then, they have occupied parliament, halting the process to choose a new president and prime minister.

Sadr's ally Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who remains caretaker prime minister, suspended cabinet meetings until further notice after Sadrist protesters stormed the government headquarters on Monday.

Iraq has struggled to recover since the defeat of the Islamic State in 2017 because political parties have squabbled over power and the vast oil wealth possessed by Iraq, OPEC's second-largest producer.