Followers of the Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the Presidential Palace in Baghdad on Monday after the announcement of the influential religious leader’s withdrawal. “I had decided not to intervene in political affairs, but now I am announcing my definitive withdrawal,” the cleric revealed on Monday, who also said that he will close all the headquarters of his movement, called the Sadrista Bloc, which has been key in the country’s politics. Hours after the announcement, his acolytes, who had been camped for a month in front of Parliament, entered the Presidential Palace, in the so-called Green Zone, where the headquarters of the Government and other Iraqi political institutions are located. The UN mission for Iraq has described the incidents as “a dangerous escalation” and called for calm and support for the security forces: “The survival of the State [iraquí] is at stake,” he warned in a statement.
“The Joint Operations Command announces a curfew in the capital, Baghdad, which includes vehicles and all citizens, starting at 3:30 p.m. local time today, Monday,” the authorities said in an official statement, without set a deadline for the measure. The acting Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kazemi, also confirmed the assault and also announced the suspension of the sessions of the Executive “until further notice”. Since the elections in October last year, Iraq has been breaking a new record of paralysis, as the political forces have failed to build a stable Executive. This political stalemate has paralyzed the country without the capacity to adopt the structural reforms it would need.
Al Sadr supporters demonstrate, holding a photo of their leader, in front of the Iraqi Supreme Court on August 23. AHMED JALIL (EFE)
The Sadrist movement, under the Sairun (Walkers) coalition, won the October elections by obtaining 73 of the 329 seats in the legislative chamber. His rivals from the Al Fateh (Conquest) coalition, which brings together several pro-Iranian parties, remained at 14, to the disappointment of their militias, who denounced alleged fraud. The Sadrist seats were not enough to govern without counting on their opponents, mostly aligned with Tehran.
Sadrism maintains a division between religious and political power. In addition, it distinguishes itself from other Shia parties and militias in its disassociation from Tehran, which has exerted increasing influence in Iraq in recent years. Al Sadr advocates the sovereignty of his country and patriotism. Faced with the impossibility of governing, in June, the cleric ordered the deputies of his formation to resign en bloc. That move paved the way for Tehran’s closest alliance to become the main force in the hemicycle. Nobody interpreted the gesture as a blank check, but rather as a sort of tactical withdrawal, so that if his rivals decided to name a candidate without consensus, he would not hesitate to mobilize his own.
Al Sadr is at the head of the only genuinely popular movement that emerged after the 2003 US invasion, whose troops he fought. In his own words, his movement sought to “repair” the country’s politics: “Bring politicians closer to the people so that they feel their suffering.” In the 2014 and 2018 elections, the political coalitions sponsored by the cleric – Al Ahrar and Sairun, respectively – won enough seats to give the leader the possibility of influencing the Iraqi government, without directly participating in it. Thus, Sadrism, with great support among the people, but not among the Shiite elite, has controlled ministries such as Health, Transport or Infrastructure. Positions that have served to consolidate their power and expand their bases.
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The October elections were the fifth since the 2003 US invasion and were marked by widespread apathy. Turnout was just over 40%. Its celebration was brought forward in response to an unprecedented wave of protests, in October 2019, which represented an amendment to the entire political regime, to which corruption, lack of work, poor public services and foreign interference were attributed. .
The UN mission in Iraq warned earlier this month of a possible escalation. For this reason, this Monday, after the assault, he called on all political actors to “lower tension and restore dialogue as the only means to resolve differences”: “We must prevent an unstoppable chain of events from being triggered” .
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