IRAQ: Powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to end their protests in central Baghdad on Tuesday, easing a confrontation that has led to the deadliest violence in the Iraqi capital in years.
Sadr apologized to Iraqis after 22 people were killed in clashes between an armed group loyal to him and rival Shiite Muslim factions backed by Iran, Sadr condemned the fighting and gave his followers one hour to disperse.
“This is not a revolution because it has lost its peaceful character,” Sadr, a former anti-U.S. rebel leader said in a televised address. “The shedding of Iraqi blood is forbidden.”
As the deadline expired around 2:00 p.m. (1100 GMT), Sadr’s supporters were seen beginning to leave the area in central Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, which houses government offices and occupied parliament for weeks.
Monday’s clashes between rival factions of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority follow 10 months of political stalemate since October’s parliamentary elections in Iraq that raised fears of escalating unrest.
Sadr emerged as the main winner of the election but failed in his efforts to form a government with Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish parties, excluding Shiite groups backed by Iran.
This week’s violence erupted after Sadr said he was withdrawing from all political activity, a decision he said was prompted by the failure of other Shiite leaders and parties to reform a corrupt and crumbling government system.
An Iraqi government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity shortly before Sadr’s speech, said authorities could not impose control over rival armed groups.
“The government is powerless to stop it because the army is also divided between (Iranian) loyalists and Sadrists,” the official said.
President Barham Salih welcomed the initial cessation of violence after Sadr’s speech, but warned that the political crisis was not over and called for early elections – Sadr’s demand – as a possible way out of the impasse.
Sadr’s actions follow a pattern of confrontation and de-escalation he has repeatedly deployed to gain political power since rising to prominence after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, said Hamdi Malik, a specialist on Iraqi Shiites. militia at the Washington Institute.
Malik said Sadr had recently tried to avoid violence to bolster his reputation as a leader of the country’s downtrodden masses, but in practice, he had to threaten violent unrest to get what he wanted.
Caught between political or religious ambitions and his role as militia chief, “Sadr has always put himself and his followers in a situation where violence and bloodshed seem inevitable, but then he always turns around and rejects violence,” Malik said.
Earlier on Tuesday, gunmen fired rockets into the Green Zone and gunmen cruised in pickup trucks carrying machine guns and brandishing grenade launchers while most residents obeyed a curfew that was lifted after Sadr’s announcement.
Neighboring Iran briefly closed its border and halted flights to Iraq, less than three weeks before the Shiite Arbaeen ritual that draws millions of Iranians to the Iraqi city of Kerbala. Later the border reopened. Read more
Emirates airline and flydubai cancelled flights to and from Baghdad on Tuesday and Wednesday, but sources said oil exports from OPEC’s second-biggest producer were unaffected by the turbulence.
Sadr positioned himself as a nationalist who opposes all foreign interference, whether from the United States and the West, or Iran.
He commands a thousand-strong militia and has millions of loyal supporters across the country. Its opponents, longtime allies of Tehran, control dozens of paramilitary groups heavily armed and trained by Iranian forces.
“There are uncontrolled militias, yes, but that does not mean that the Sadrist movement should also be uncontrolled,” Sadr said of the protests.