In the hours that followed, political divisions in Iraq deepened with a flurry of rocket attacks and gunfights in the once-closed Green Zone and in other cities across the country. Health officials said at least 34 people were killed.
“I apologize to the Iraqi people,” Sadr said in a televised address on Tuesday afternoon. “I was hoping for a peaceful demonstration, not with mortars and weapons. I don’t want such a revolution.”
Protests in Iraq turn deadly after prominent cleric quits politics
Minutes after his speech ended, his supporters, some with rocket-propelled grenades or other weapons, began to run away from the Green Zone. Iraqi authorities announced the lifting of a city curfew imposed on Monday, and the acting prime minister thanked Sadr for his “patriotism” by calling on his followers.
The violence, the deadliest in Iraq in several years, has done little to resolve a political deadlock that left the country without a government and its citizens since last year, both deprived of basic services and caught in the power struggle between Sadr’s supporters and rivals. Shia groups sponsored by Iran.
In the grand scheme of things, the violence amounted to a “fight” between powerful Shia militias fighting for their position, said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York who is currently in Baghdad. But “for the average Iraqi it shows how far these groups are willing to go. They are willing to fight each other for power and position.
“This is a dangerous game,” he said. “This can get out of hand.”
The political deadlock began in October, when Sadr’s bloc won the largest number of seats in parliament but failed to form a government after trying to exclude its Shia rivals. After months of political paralysis, Sadr announced his parliamentary candidates would resign from the legislature, then sent his followers to occupy the parliament.
A rival Shia political group, dominated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accused Sadr of plotting a “coup d’état” and has staged its own demonstrations during a summer of unrest.
Sadr, a populist with hundreds of thousands of followers who opposes both US and Iranian influence in Iraq, has called for snap elections, as well as for political figures who served after the US-led 2003 invasion to be banned from government.
“At the heart of this is a power struggle,” Jiyad said. sadr “believes to be” [bloc] is the only legal representative of the Iraqi Shia that he should be in charge, that he should not share power with anyone else, at least the Shia community.” On the other side is a powerful Shia bloc called the Coordination Framework, which believes that “Sadr is very problematic, and he is not a representative of the Iraqi Shia and should not be in charge.”
Sadr’s retirement announcement — one of at least half a dozen similar announcements he’s made over the years — came after he was “pushed into a corner,” Jiyad said, amid the political stalemate, but also made a critical statement about him Monday. was released by a cleric believed to be a supporter of Sadr’s family.
Sadr’s announcement marked a green light for his supporters, as well as a message to Iraq’s other political factions, Jiyad said: “This is the level of violence he is trying to prevent, and this is how powerful his group is. That he keeps some of this anger under control.” He noted that Sadr waited a whole day before calling on his followers to withdraw.
When his supporters withdrew from the Green Zone on Tuesday, carrying a huge assortment of weapons, they left behind crumbling blast walls and a sea of used bullet casings, which were promptly collected by children to sell for scrap.
“Personally, I didn’t want to back down,” said Mouamle Hassan, 21, who left the area with a rifle. “We have lost martyrs, but we will always obey Sadr.” The cleric’s demands – the dissolution of parliament and early elections – now weigh more heavily, he said. “Now those corrupt militias have seen what we are capable of,” he said, referring to Sadr’s rivals.
Fahim reported from Istanbul.