BAGHDAD (AP) – A highly influential Shia cleric announced on Monday that he would step down from Iraqi politics, and his angry supporters stormed the government palace in response, stoking fears that violence could erupt in a country already struggling from its own worst political crisis in years.
The Iraqi military announced a citywide curfew in the capital and the acting prime minister suspended cabinet meetings in response to the unrest.
Hundreds used ropes to tear down the cement barriers in front of the government palace and breach the palace gates. Many flocked to the palace’s lavish drawing rooms and marble halls, a key meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.
Protests have also erupted in the Shia-majority southern provinces, with al-Sadr supporters burning tires and blocking roads in the oil-rich province of Basra, and hundreds demonstrating outside the government building in Missan.
The Iraqi government has been deadlocked since cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in October’s general election, but not enough to secure a majority rule, the longest since the US-led invasion, which shattered the political restored order. His refusal to negotiate with Iran-backed Shia rivals and subsequent exit from talks have catapulted the country into political uncertainty and volatility amid rising internal Shia infighting.
To advance his political interests, al-Sadr has wrapped his rhetoric in a nationalist and reformist agenda that resonates with his broad base, drawn from the poorest strata of Iraqi society and historically excluded from the political system. They are demanding the dissolution of parliament and snap elections without the participation of Iran-backed groups, which they blame for the status quo.
Iran sees internal Shiite disharmony as a threat to its influence in Iraq and has repeatedly attempted to broker a dialogue with al-Sadr.
In July, al-Sadr’s supporters broke into parliament to prevent his rivals in the Coordination Framework, a coalition of mostly Iran-aligned Shia parties, from forming a government. Hundreds of them have been holding a sit-in in front of the building for over four weeks. His bloc has also resigned from Parliament. The framework is led by al-Sadr’s nemesis, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Having a say in forming the next government — which involves sharing state resources and finances — has become a zero-sum game for political survival for the rival factions, compounded by al-Sadr’s reluctance to involve pro-Iran groups in the process. The impasse ushered in a new era of instability and raised the specter of intrasectarian street fighting.
The break-in at the palace on Monday marked a new escalation in the political struggle and the possibility of bloodshed.
This isn’t the first time al-Sadr, who is calling 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 influence amid a deepening stalemate to gain on his rivals. The cleric has used the tactic before, when political developments didn’t go his way.
But many are concerned it is a risky move and worried about how it will affect Iraq’s fragile political climate. By withdrawing from the political process, al-Sadr gives his followers, who are most disenfranchised by the political system, the opportunity to act as they see fit.
Al-Sadr draws his political power from a large grassroots constituency, but he also commands a militia. He also retains great influence over Iraq’s state institutions through appointments to key positions in the civil service.
His Iran-backed rivals also have militias.
The Iraqi military was quick to announce a citywide curfew on Monday, hoping to calm rising tensions and stave off the possibility of clashes. She urged the cleric’s supporters to withdraw immediately from the heavily fortified government area and exercise self-control “to prevent clashes or the shedding of Iraqi blood,” a statement said.
“The security forces reaffirm their responsibility to protect government institutions, international missions, public and private property,” the statement said.
Acting Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called on al-Sadr to urge his supporters to withdraw from government institutions. He also announced that cabinet meetings would be suspended.
In a tweet, the cleric announced his retirement from politics and ordered his party offices to be closed. Religious and cultural institutions remain open.
Al-Sadr’s decision on Monday appeared in part to be a reaction to the resignation of Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, who counts many of al-Sadr’s supporters among his supporters.
The day before, al-Haeri announced that he would step down as a religious authority due to ill health, and urged his followers to put their allegiance behind Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and not to the Shia spiritual center in the holy city of Najaf in Iraq .
The move was a blow to al-Sadr. In his statement, he said al-Haeri’s resignation “was not of his own volition.”