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Senior cleric Sadr withdraws from Iraq's politics as country's political stalemate worsens

Prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr delivers a televised speech in the holy shrine city of Najaf, Iraq, on August 3, 2022. (Photo by Reuters)

Prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has announced that he is quitting political life and closing his political offices amid a deepening political stalemate that has left the country without a new government since last October's parliamentary elections.

“I've decided not to meddle in political affairs. I therefore announce now my definitive retirement,” Sadr wrote in an Arabic post published on his Twitter account on Monday.

In his statement, Sadr also attacked his political opponents, and said they had failed to heed his calls for reform.

The statement comes as many of Sadr’s supporters have been participating in a sit-in outside the Iraqi parliament since the end of July.

Several hundred supporters of the cleric gathered in front of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) in the capital Baghdad last Tuesday, reiterating their calls for the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament and holding early elections.

Images released by Sadr’s movement at the time showed people setting up tents outside the gates of SJC’s headquarters, as they carried placards demanding the non-politicization of the judiciary and ending corruption.

Earlier, the top judicial body said it did not have sufficient authority to dissolve the country's parliament, urging all parties to refrain from getting the judiciary involved in political rivalries.

Sadr had demanded dissolution of parliament and early elections. He had also called on his supporters to continue the sit-in inside the parliament until his demands were met.

Sadr’s bloc emerged from elections in October as the biggest parliamentary faction, but was still far short of a majority, causing the longest political vacuum in the country since the 2003 devastating invasion of the Arab country led by the United States.

In June, all 73 legislators of the bloc quit their seats in a move seen as an attempt to pressure political rivals into fast-tracking the formation of a government.

According to Iraqi laws, if any seat in parliament becomes vacant, the candidate who obtains the second-highest number of votes in their electoral district replaces them.

This means that many of the seats vacated by Sadrists will therefore be filled by member parties of the Coordination Framework Alliance, such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law and the Fatah Alliance, which is the political wing of the Popular Mobilization Units, better known as Hashd al-Sha’bi.

Dozen killed, hundreds wounded in unrest following Sadr's announcement

Following Sadr’s announcement, dozens of his supporters stormed the Republican Palace on Monday, which is a ceremonial building inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone of government buildings, AFP quoted a security source as saying.

Angry protesters "entered the Republican Palace" shortly after Sadr said he was quitting politics, the source said, with several thousand other Sadr loyalists heading towards the Green Zone.

Following the commotion, Iraq's Joint Operations Command set a full curfew in the capital of Baghdad until further notice, which will begin at 19:00 local time(1600 GMT), state news agency INA reported. It also urged the protesters to leave the Green Zone to avoid clashes.

Iraq’s al-Sumaria network also reported that the Iraqi police have used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the protesters.

Following the unrest and after pro-Sadr protesters broke into the government's headquarters, Iraq's Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi suspended cabinet sessions until further notice, INA news agency reported.

According to AFP, live fire rocked Baghdad's Green Zone after Sadr's supporters stormed the government building in the fortified area.

The latest reports indicate that Iraq's security forces have regained control of the Republican Palace.

According to Iraqi medics and police sources, 15 people were killed and as many as 350 others injured in Monday clashes in the capital Baghdad.

UN chief calls for restraint, de-escalation in Iraq

In another development on Monday, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for "restraint" in Iraq and asked all parties to "take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation."

The secretary general "has been following with concern the ongoing protests in Iraq today, during which demonstrators entered government buildings," UN chief’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement. 

"He appeals for calm and restraint, and urges all relevant actors to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation and avoid any violence," Dujarric added.

"The Secretary General strongly urges all parties and actors to rise above their differences and to engage, without further delay, in a peaceful and inclusive dialogue on a constructive way forward," he noted.

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