Iraq on the Brink of a Shiite-Shiite War
Supporters of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gather outside the Government Headquarters in the capital Baghdad's Green Zone, on August 29, 2022. (Ahmad Al-rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Iraq on the Brink of a Shiite-Shiite War

12 dead after Sadr announces he’s leaving politics and his followers take to the streets

The bell of civil war may have sounded in Iraq after bloody confrontations between supporters and opponents of anti-Tehran regime Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr led to at least a dozen deaths and more than a hundred wounded on Monday.

His Sadrist Movement and the Coordination Framework composed of Shiite political parties loyal to Iran have been locked in a dispute since last October’s election, leaving the country unable to form a new government.

Sadr blew matters up with a surprise announcement on Monday that he is retiring from political life and closing his movement’s political and social institutions. Hundreds of his furious followers stormed the capital’s sensitive Green Zone and took to the streets in several provinces.

The government announced a complete curfew for three days in Baghdad and a partial one in seven of Iraq’s 18 governorates.

Sadr issued a statement on his Twitter account accusing “Shiite political forces” of corruption and hinting that his life is in danger of assassination.

He acted one day before the Federal Supreme Court is to consider his request to dissolve parliament.

Sadr’s office issued a statement that included directives to his followers, telling them, “It is strictly prohibited to interfere in all political, governmental and media matters, raise slogans, flags and political chants and use any media, including social media platforms, in the name of the Sadrist Movement.”

Immediately after the tweet was released, thousands of Sadr’s supporters attacked the Green Zone and stormed the Republican Palace, the headquarters of the Iraqi government, in addition to government headquarters in various Iraqi provinces.

The Iraqi capital also witnessed confrontations between Sadr’s supporters and the police and the army, as the demonstrators tried to break the curfew.

Fighters of the Sarayat al-Salam (“Peace Companies”) militia he leads deployed with their weapons in Baghdad as supporters burned pictures of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander who was assassinated in a US drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020, and of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces (a group of mostly Shiite militias formed to fight ISIS) who died alongside Soleimani.

The Executive Committee running the Sadrist Movement’s sit-ins outside parliament announced the end of its control over the street demonstrations.

Media outlets circulated video of Sadrist supporters approaching the house of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a member of the Coordination Framework, while chanting slogans calling for changing the regime and ending dependence on Iran. Maliki fled by helicopter to outside the Green Zone, the outlets reported.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called on the demonstrators to immediately withdraw from the Green Zone.

“The demonstrators’ bypassing state institutions is a condemned act and outside the legal contexts,” Kadhimi said in a statement on Monday, and called on Sadr, “who has always supported the state and emphasized keenness for its prestige and respect for the security forces,” to also call on the protesters to withdraw from government institutions.

Kadhimi also directed the Council of Ministers – the government’s executive branch − to suspend its sessions until further notice due to a group of demonstrators entering the council’s headquarters in the Governmental Palace.

The president of Iraq, Barham Salih, stressed that the developments require the national forces to rise above their differences, adding, “The difficult circumstance that is going through our country requires everyone to abide by calm and restraint, prevent escalation, and ensure that the situation does not slip into unknown and dangerous mazes in which everyone will lose.”

He also added that “peaceful demonstration and expression of opinion is a constitutionally guaranteed right with adherence to the laws and the preservation of public security, but disrupting state institutions is a dangerous matter that puts the country and citizens’ interests in grave danger.”

Salih called on the protesters to “withdraw from official institutions and allow the security forces to carry out their duties.”

The US embassy denied evacuating its offices or transferring its employees outside Iraq, stressing that it had taken the necessary measures to preserve their safety.

Iran called on its citizens to quickly leave Iraq, asking them not to go to religious shrines, especially with the approaching commemoration on September 17 of the “Arba’een of Imam Hussein,” a religious occasion on which Shiites gather in Karbala, Iraq.

Arab countries also called on their citizens to exit Iraq.

Muwaffaq al-Khattab, a prominent Iraqi politician, told The Media Line, “What is happening may drag Iraq into the quagmire of a Shiite-Shiite civil war, especially since Iran will not let the parties loyal to it fall. We may see more blood in the coming days, and Iraq may enter into a major sectarian war, especially Baghdad and the southern regions with a Shiite majority.”

He added, “The Iraqi security forces are not highly professional, they are infiltrated, and there are those who have loyalty to a political party. Some of them allowed the demonstrators to storm the Green Zone and reach the Republican Palace, and others allowed them to demonstrate in front of the Federal Supreme Court. This is a problem that has no solution.

“Iran is benefiting from this internal Iraqi fighting. This matter will put pressure on the United States. Tehran is now in negotiations with Washington on the nuclear file, and this matter will certainly be part of the negotiations,” Khattab said.

Jabbar al-Maamouri, a member of the Coordination Framework, told The Media Line that “Muqtada al-Sadr’s step is designed to aggravate the situation and drag the country into a Shiite-Shiite war. Sadr has not really left politics.

“This is absurd. He wants to impose the current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on everyone…. Sadr benefits from the presence of Kadhimi, who appointed Sadr’s followers in all ministries to high positions, and he also controls the Central Bank, and he does not want to lose all of that,” Maamouri said.

Raad Hashem, an Iraqi political analyst, told The Media Line, “The Sadrist Movement’s demonstrations were peaceful and government property was not encroached upon, but what the militias affiliated with Iran did was an attempt to dwarf Muqtada al-Sadr’s role in Iraq.”

He continued, “Recently, Muqtada al-Sadr’s popularity has increased in Iraq, especially after Iran’s affiliated parties lost the elections, and the street as well. Therefore, Iran is seeking to reduce Sadr’s role and intervene to change things in its favor.”

Ihsan al-Shammari, who heads the Iraqi Political Thinking Center in Baghdad, told The Media Line, “Sadr’s withdrawal from political life is a reaction to Iran’s attempts to end his role as a cleric in Iraq, a role he inherited from his father and grandfather, former clerics.

“Before Sadr issued his statement and announced his withdrawal from the political process, there was a cleric called [Ayatollah] Kadhim Husayni al-Haeri, who resides in Iran. Haeri was considered an Arab religious authority, but he went to the city of Qom in Iran, and then announced that [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei should be followed and not any other cleric, referring to Muqtada al-Sadr,” he continued.

Sadr views this as an attempt to impose Tehran’s control over religious authority in Iraq, and that Haeri would not have done it without pressure from Iran, Shammari said.

Khaled al-Aani, a professor of political science, told The Media Line, “I expected this step from Muqtada al-Sadr. The political forces differed greatly from him. He wants all the parties that previously participated to remain outside the political process; he wants to form a new political process.”

Faiq Al Sheikh Ali, secretary-general of the liberal People’s Party, attacked Sadr on Twitter, calling him a “playing child.”

“Since Muqtada al-Sadr began issuing the fatwa ‘religious opinions’ and declared the Iraqis to be infidels, their money, blood, and lands were stolen. You are cursed,” he said.

“What is happening is neither a revolution nor a change of the political system, it is a desire to increase his share of the pie,” Sheikh Ali said.

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