In the hours that followed, Iraq’s political divisions deepened in a flurry of rocket attacks and shootings in the once-cloistered Green Zone and other cities across the country. Health officials said at least 34 people have died.
“I apologize to the Iraqi people,” Sadr said in a televised address Tuesday afternoon. “I expected a peaceful demonstration, not with mortars and guns. I don’t want such a revolution.”
Minutes after he finished his speech, his supporters, some carrying rocket-propelled grenades or other weapons, began to walk away from the Green Zone. Iraqi authorities announced the lifting of the city’s curfew that was imposed on Monday, and the interim prime minister thanked Sadr for his “patriotism” in firing his supporters.
The violence, the deadliest in Iraq in several years, did little to resolve a political standoff that has left the country without a government since last year and its citizens deprived of basic services and captive to infighting between Sadr’s supporters and rival Shiite groups that are sponsored by Iran.
In the grand scheme of things, the violence amounted to a “fight” between powerful Shiite militias vying for position, said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York who is currently in Baghdad. But “for the average Iraqi, it shows how far these groups are willing to go. They are willing to fight each other for power and position.
“This is a dangerous game,” he said. “This could get out of control.”
The political standoff began in October, when Sadr’s bloc won the most seats in parliament but was unable to form a government after trying to exclude Shi’ite rivals. After months of political paralysis, Sadr announced that his parliamentary candidates would resign from the legislature, and subsequently sent his supporters to occupy parliament.
A rival Shi’ite political group, dominated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accused Sadr of trying to stage a “coup” and staged its own demonstrations during a summer of unrest.
sad, a populist with hundreds of thousands of followers who has opposed US and Iranian influence in Iraqhe has called for snap elections, as well as for political figures who served after the US-led invasion in 2003 to be barred from government.
“There is a power struggle at the core of this,” Jiyad said. sadr “believes that his [bloc] he is the only legal representative of the Shiites in Iraq, who should be in charge, who should not have to share power with anyone else, at least from the Shiite community.” On the other side is a powerful Shiite bloc, called the Coordination Framework, which believes that “Sadr is very troublesome, and he is not a representative of Iraq’s Shiites and should not have the last word.”
Sadr’s retirement announcement, one of at least half a dozen similar announcements he has made over the years, came after he had been “pushed into a corner,” Jiyad said, by the political deadlock but also by a statement critical of him published Monday by a cleric seen as a supporter of Sadr’s family.
Sadr’s announcement represented a green light for his supporters, as well as a message to Iraq’s other political factions, Jiyad said: “This is the level of violence he is trying to prevent, and this is how powerful his group is. That he is controlling some of this anger.” He noted that Sadr waited a full day before calling his followers to stand down.
When his supporters withdrew from the Green Zone on Tuesday, carrying a wide variety of weapons, they left behind collapsed explosive walls and a sea of spent shell casings, which the children quickly scavenged to sell for scrap.
“Personally, I didn’t want to retreat,” said Mouamle Hassan, 21, who left the area with a rifle. “We lost martyrs, but we will always obey Sadr.” The cleric’s demands – for the dissolution of parliament and early elections – now carry more weight, he estimated. “Now those corrupt militias have seen what we are capable of,” he said, referring to Sadr’s rivals.
Fahim reported from Istanbul.
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