Powerful Iraqi cleric Sadr quits politics

NAJAF: Firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of a powerful political movement and a major figure in the formation of post-Saddam Iraq, has announced his exit from politics two months before legislative polls.

"I announce my non-intervention in all political affairs and that there is no bloc that represents us from now on, nor any position inside or outside the government nor parliament," Sadr said in a written statement on his website.

Sadr's group currently holds six cabinet posts as well as 40 seats in the 325-member parliament.

He also said his movement's political offices will be closed, but that others related to social welfare, media and education will remain open.

It was not immediately clear if the decision was temporary or permanent, with Sadrist officials surprised by the announcement not in a position to clarify.

One official from Sadr's office said that no one wanted to discuss the issue "because it was a surprise decision."

"I do not think it will be reversed... Because it is a very strong decision," the official added however.

If confirmed as permanent, Sadr's announcement brings to a close a political career spanning more than a decade.

It began with his sharp criticism of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, with his movement subsequently gaining seats in parliament, cabinet posts and playing the role of political kingmaker.

Sadr, who has a grey-streaked, bushy black beard and wears the black turban of a “sayyid,” or descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, gained widespread popularity in the months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

His rise, aided by the reputations of two famed relatives - including his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadiq al-Sadr and uncle Ayatollah Baqir al-Sadr executed during Saddam rule, eventually translated into political power.

Cabinet posts and parliamentary seats followed for his movement, despite his relative youth, having been born in the 1970s.

After the invasion which toppled Saddam, Sadr commanded the Mahdi Army militia, which fought fierce battles with American and Iraqi government forces, and he was identified by the Pentagon in 2006 as the biggest threat to stability in Iraq.

The Mahdi Army - estimated to have had up to 60,000 members - was once the most active and feared armed Shiite group in the country, and was blamed by Washington for death-squad killings of thousands of Sunnis.

But in August 2008, Sadr suspended the activities of the Mahdi Army after major U.S. and Iraqi assaults on its strongholds in Baghdad and southern Iraq.

Following the ceasefire, U.S. military commanders said Sadr’s action had been instrumental in helping bring about a significant decrease in the levels of violence across Iraq.

He nonetheless continued his vocal opposition to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

He left the country at the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials, and reportedly pursued religious studies in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

Sadr returned in early 2011, and then shuttled between Qom and Najaf, his base south of Baghdad. But he showed he could still pull powerful political strings even during his self-imposed exile.

After throwing his weight behind politician Nouri al-Maliki in 2006, ensuring he became prime minister, Sadr then ordered his followers to pull out of the premier’s cabinet the next year, almost bringing down the government.

Sadr’s bloc contested the 2010 legislative election in an alliance with the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, another Shiite group with links to Iran.

The Sadrists were widely seen as kingmakers after the inconclusive polls.

Sadr’s attention has since increasingly turned to his religious studies, and away from politics. But despite only making rare appearances in public, the cleric is idolized by millions of Shia Muslims. Trans Asia News

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