Baghdad: Iraq’s army declared a nationwide curfew from 7:00 pm Monday after supporters of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr stormed the Republican Palace in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone leading to bloody clashes.
Protests sparked by Muqtada al-Sadr’s withdrawal from politics on Monday descended into deadly chaos, as clashes in Baghdad spread across southern Iraq.
Fighting in the Iraqi capital around the fortified Green Zone continued well into the night, as gunfire and explosions rang out over the city.
Yet it wasn’t always clear who was fighting who. Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam faction claimed to be fighting both Iran-backed paramilitaries and federal Special Division forces, though military sources were quoted by media saying the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary groups were holding back.
The chaos began on Monday morning, when influential Shia cleric Sadr announced he was withdrawing from politics. Sadr, who has seen his attempts to form a government thwarted by his Iran-backed rivals after emerging victorious from October’s elections, has made the claim several times before.
Nevertheless, his supporters, many of whom were already holding a sit-in protest outside parliament in Baghdad’s Green Zone demanding fresh elections, began storming government buildings.
Inside the opulent Republican Palace, protesters lounged in armchairs in a meeting room, some waved Iraqi flags and took photographs of themselves, and others cooled off in a swimming pool in the garden, in scenes reminiscent of anti-government protests in Sri Lanka last month.
The Republican Palace is where the Iraqi cabinet meets, and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has now suspended all meetings of his government until further notice, according to a statement released by his office.
Confrontations with security forces began soon after, and though they were ordered not to use live fire by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a Sadr ally, reports of Sadrist causalities began to circulate.
By nightfall, the Green Zone was under heavy fire. Convoys of Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam fighters headed to the district, fanning out down the road extending from al-Jumhuriya Bridge to the Green Zone.
Automatic rifles, rocket propelled grenades, vehicle-mounted guns and mortars were fired at the Green Zone, and later it appeared rockets were too.
Calling the developments “an extremely dangerous escalation,” the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) urged “all” sides to “refrain from acts that could lead to an unstoppable chain of events.”
“The very survival of the state is at stake,” it warned.
Locked down by curfew and frightened to step outside, Baghdad residents spent the night nervously hoping calm would be restored.
Sadr himself said he was going on hunger strike until fighting ended, while Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Iran-backed Badr Organisation also appealed for calm.
It didn’t take long until the discord spread south to Shia-majority provinces where both Sadr and his Iranian-backed rivals enjoy huge support.
Sadr followers stormed government buildings in the cities of Nasiriyah and Hillah south of Baghdad with some roads also blocked in Hillah.
According to local media, Sadr’s supporters also stormed the provincial government building in the southern Dhi Qar governorate.
They also reportedly did the same in the Wasit and Maysan governorates. Graffiti adorning the Maysan governorate building appeared to read “closed by the order of the people”.
In Basra, Sadrist demonstrators burned tyres and set up roadblocks.
Iraq has been mired in political deadlock since legislative elections in October last year, due to disagreement between Shiite factions over forming a coalition.
“I’ve decided not to meddle in political affairs. I therefore announce now my definitive retirement,” said Sadr, a longtime player in the war-torn country’s political scene, though he himself has never directly been in government.
He added that “all the institutions” linked to his Sadrist movement will be closed, except the mausoleum of his father, assassinated in 1999, and other heritage facilities.
Over the years, the chameleon-like Sadr has taken various positions and then reversed them.
His latest statement came two days after he said “all parties” including his own should give up government positions in order to help resolve the political crisis.
His bloc emerged from last year’s election as the biggest, with 73 seats, but short of a majority. In June, his lawmakers quit in a bid to break the logjam, which led to the Coordination Framework becoming the largest bloc in the legislature.
Since then, Sadr has engaged in other pressure tactics, including a mass prayer by tens of thousands of his followers on August 5.
Hamzeh Hadad, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said it was “not clear” what Sadr’s strategy was.
“Whatever it does mean, in typical Sadrist fashion, there is always backtracking expected,” Hadad said.
“The second, and more terrifying thought on this is that he is giving his followers the green light to do whatever they like.”
Many Iraqis say the political infighting has nothing to do with their day-to-day struggles.
Iraq has been ravaged by decades of conflict and endemic corruption.
Oil-rich but blighted by ailing infrastructure, unemployment, power cuts and crumbling public services, Iraq now also faces water shortages as drought ravages swathes of the country.
Iran closes borders
Iran on Monday closed its border with Iraq amid political unrest in this neighboring country.
Majid Mirahmadi, deputy Iranian interior minister for security affairs made the announcement on Monday.
He said that the border will remain closed until further notice and Iranian pilgrims cannot use border areas to visit Iraq.
Authorities in Ilam Province, which is located in western Iran and shares border with Iraq, have also demanded the Iranians, who have come to the province to go to Iraq, cancel their trip through the Mehran border area.
On, Monday evening, the Iranian authorities announced the suspension of flights to Baghdad, after violence spread in Iraq.
“Imam Khomeini International Airport in the capital, Tehran, announced the cancellation of all flights to Baghdad until further notice,” the “Iran” network in Arabic reported.
The Iranian Ministry of Interior had called, earlier today, “Iranian citizens not to travel to Iraq until further notice, and that it will work to return Iranian visitors to the country safely.”
For its part, the Iranian embassy in Baghdad asked “Iranian visitors who are in Najaf and Karbala to perform the Arbaeen not to roam in Baghdad, Kazmya and Samarra until further notice.
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