Baghdad palace invasion triggers clashes

Followers of militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone in Baghdad last night after he announced his withdrawal from politics, a move largely viewed as a power play in a fight for control against Iranian-backed groups.

Fifteen of al-Sadr’s supporters were shot dead and 270 others injured in clashes with security forces and rival militias, AFP reported, with a mob managing to seize control of a Saddam Hussein-era presidential palace that is now home to government offices despite a curfew being enacted.

Iraq has been locked in a political-stand off since last year’s October inconclusive elections. Sadr’s political faction, which demands an Iraq free from the influence of Iran and America, emerged as the largest single party. But he was unable to secure the backing of enough other Shia groups to force through the preferred choices for president and the government. During the stalemate that has ensued over forming a new government, al-Sadr has galvanised his followers, throwing Iraq’s efforts to recover from decades of conflict, sanctions and corruption into disarray.

Yesterday’s claim that al-Sadr would pull out of politics completely and close all political functions of his movement was a gesture typical of the sort which has been witnessed on several occasions during his long career as an Iraqi kingmaker. “I’ve decided not to meddle in political affairs… I, therefore, announce now my definitive retirement” he said. Although al-Sadr has often returned to political activity after similar announcements, the current deadlock in Iraq appears harder to resolve compared to previous periods of dysfunction.

After his announcement, Sadrist supporters flooded into the Green Zone, the international area protected by US troops following the 2003 invasion. Videos posted online show police firing tear gas and deploying water cannons on demonstrators.

Clashes also took place in cities in the Shia-dominated south of the country. The acting prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi declared a curfew from 3:30 pm (local time) and called on Sadr to ask his followers to leave, prompting some to do so. Yet even after the curfew, the sound of machinegun fire could be heard in the centre of Baghdad and videos show that several shells landed in the Green Zone.

The question of who will run Iraq remains unresolved. Sadr is unlikely to leave the political system in the hands of the other Shia factions, controlled directly or indirectly by Iran. The United Nations urged all sides to back down last night. ‘The very survival of the state is at stake” it said. That statement was echoed by Washington who called the events “disturbing” and warned that Monday’s developments could lead to further violence.

Image Credit: AP Photo/Anmar Khalil