By Amer Hamid
Baghdad, Aug 29 (EFE).- Influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s announcement that he is retiring from Iraqi politics sparked violence on Monday, with thousands of his supporters storming the presidential and government palaces in this capital and triggering clashes that left at least 12 dead.
After more than 10 months of political paralysis and the inability of parliament to form a new government, the situation has entered more dangerous territory with al-Sadr’s move.
“I had decided not to interfere in political affairs, but I now announce my final retirement and the closure of all (Sadrist Bloc) institutions,” the cleric said Monday in a statement.
Al-Sadr’s bloc secured 73 seats in the 329-strong parliament in elections held in October of last year.
But that was well short of a majority and gridlock ensued, with the Sadrists at loggerheads not only with Kurdish parties but also other Shiite groupings with close ties to Iran.
Amid the stalemate, all of the Sadrist lawmakers resigned in June and since then the cleric has mobilized his supporters in the streets.
Prior to Monday, al-Sadr’s supporters had breached parliament – located, like the presidential and government palaces, in Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone – on a pair of occasions.
Seeking to interrupt the nomination of a new prime minister, they set up a camp in late July that prevented legislators from meeting.
Images broadcast by local television on Monday showed a crowd of people scaling the walls of the presidential palace and even jumping in its swimming pool to seek relief from the 46 C (115 F) heat in Baghdad on Monday.
With Sadrist leaders not intervening to bring the situation under control, Iraqi authorities declared a curfew in Baghdad that went into effect at 3.30 pm local time.
Another curfew was later issued for the entire country after violence spread elsewhere, particularly to al-Sadr’s main stronghold in Iraq’s southern provinces.
“Disrupting state institutions is a dangerous matter that puts the country and citizens’ interests in grave danger,” Iraqi President Barham Salih said in a statement in which he urged demonstrators to withdraw from government buildings.
In previous demonstrations and takeovers of parliament, al-Sadr had urged his supporters not to carry firearms. But amid a lack of authority during Monday’s chaos, weapons were plentiful on the streets of Baghdad and particularly in the heavily fortified Green Zone.
As a result, at least 12 demonstrators died and dozens more were wounded by gunshots and “violent actions,” a source at Iraq’s Interior Ministry who asked not to be identified told Efe.
He did not specify which group fired at the demonstrators, although media outlets affiliated with Iraq’s pro-Iranian militias, which function under the umbrella, pro-government Popular Mobilization Forces, uploaded images on Telegram of militia members firing into the air during the Sadrist demonstrations.
They also said combatants with al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades, a militia force, had entered the Green Zone carrying “light weapons.”
The Peace Brigades engaged in fierce battles with the security forces in the Green Zone, leading to casualties on both sides.
Amid the clashes, al-Sadr began a hunger strike “until the violence and use of weapons stops,” one of his spokesmen, Hassan al-Azari, said in a brief statement on Facebook.
The UN mission in Iraq urged demonstrators to cooperate with the security forces and “refrain from acts that could lead to an unstoppable chain of events.”