Iraqi cleric calls off protests in Baghdad after worst wave of violence in years. At least 35 people have died
The apparent departure from political life of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr has left behind two days of chaos in Iraq. At least 35 people have died and more than 700 have been injured as a result of clashes between militiamen in favor of the Iraqi political leader and other pro-Iranian Shiite organizations in one of the worst episodes of violence in Baghdad in recent years.
The announcement by Al Sadr, 48, this Monday brought hundreds of his supporters to the streets, who stormed the Presidential Palace, located inside the Green Zone – the fortified central sector, where the ministerial headquarters are located, the Parliament and the embassies – of the Iraqi capital.
Early yesterday morning, supporters of the Sadrist Movement launched rockets at the Green Zone and militiamen armed with grenade launchers and machine guns paraded through the streets of Baghdad with an Army unable to stop them . During the early morning, projectile shots were recorded throughout the city.
Al Sadr, whose movement won parliamentary elections last October, has since been unable to form a government alongside Sunni Muslim and Kurdish parties. On Monday he announced his “definitive” departure from the national political scene, linking the decision to the failure of the leaders of the rest of the Shia movements to reform the “corrupt” Iraqi political system.
The cleric, one of the main political figures in Iraq for two decades -despite never having held official positions-, has been characterized by his nationalist ideas and his opposition both to Iranian interference -although he was once a partner of Tehran- as Western in Iraq’s political system. Al Sadr defends the holding of new parliamentary elections and the immediate exit of all the government parties as a way to unblock the situation.
Calm in the last hours
The intervention of the cleric, who gave his supporters a margin of one hour yesterday morning in a televised speech to leave the aforementioned Green Zone, allowed a gradual return to normality in the Iraqi capital. The militants of the Shiite movement responded positively to Al Sadr’s request, and by Tuesday afternoon they had cleared the downtown area. Only then did the Army, which had been overwhelmed by the Sadrist militiamen, lift the national curfew.
The cleric sent a harsh message to his supporters for having staged the outbreak of violence in the streets of Baghdad. “I bow my head and apologize to the Iraqi people because they are the only ones affected by what is happening… the murderer and the murdered are in the fire,” Al Sadr admitted. “This is not a revolution because it has lost its peaceful character. The shedding of Iraqi blood is prohibited (…) Now I criticize the revolution of the Sadrist Movement as I criticized the October Revolution”, settled the Iraqi leader.
The escalation unleashed by Muqtada al Sadr ‘s announcement yesterday moved the authorities of neighboring Iran to close their borders with Iraq and Turkey and not advise their citizens to travel to Iraqi territory. A decision that Tehran adopts less than three weeks before the celebration of the largest religious pilgrimage in the world: the Arbain, which takes place forty days after Ashura – a Shiite festival that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein – and each year brings together millions of Shiites, including many Iranians, in the Iraqi city of Kerbala.
Iraq’s prime minister, the independent Mustafa al-Kadhimi , welcomed the cleric’s decision. “His Eminence Muqtada Al Sadr’s call to end the violence is the epitome of patriotism and respect for the sanctity of Iraqi blood, ” the head of the internal government wrote on Twitter. The United Nations also celebrated the Shiite leader’s call to his supporters to leave the Green Zone in Baghdad. The United States called for dialogue between the different groups to avoid escalation.
“The problem is that we have too many political actors fighting for the same remains of the cake , and they are no longer able to distribute those positions within the State institutions as they had done in the past. The elections can remove the current impasse, but they will not solve the deep political problem that has been installed in Iraq since 2003, “explained the Iraq expert from the International Crisis Group Lahib Higel on the Al Jazeera website.
Although the situation has apparently returned to relative normality in Baghdad, the deep divisions between the different Iraqi political movements do not rule out a return to large-scale violence , according to experts, who speculate on the sincerity of Al Sadr’s announcement of definitively leave the political scene. The specter of civil war continues to haunt Iraq nearly five years after the last war ended.