In the hours that followed, political divisions in Iraq deepened in a wave of rocket attacks and shootings in the once cloistered Green Zone and other towns across the country. Health officials said at least 34 people had been killed.
“I apologize to the people of Iraq,” Sadr said in a televised speech early Tuesday afternoon. “I was hoping for a peaceful demonstration, not with mortars and weapons. I don’t want such a revolution.
Minutes after his speech ended, his supporters, some carrying rocket-propelled grenades or other weapons, began to move away from the Green Zone. Iraqi authorities announced the lifting of the curfew imposed on the city on Monday, and the interim prime minister thanked Sadr for his “patriotism” as he recalled his supporters.
The violence, the deadliest in Iraq in several years, has done little to resolve a political stalemate that has left the country without a government since last year and its citizens both deprived of basic services and captive infighting between Sadr’s supporters and rival Shia groups that are sponsored by Iran.
In the scheme of things, the violence amounted to a “brawl” between powerful Shia militias vying for position, said Sajad Jiyad, a Century Foundation fellow in New York, currently in Baghdad. But “for the average Iraqi, it shows how far these groups are willing to go. They are ready to fight for power and position.
“It’s a dangerous game,” he said. “It could get out of hand.”
The political stalemate began in October, when Sadr’s bloc won the most seats in parliament but was unable to form a government after trying to oust its Shia rivals. After months of political paralysis, Sadr announced that his parliamentary candidates would resign from the legislature and then sent his supporters to occupy parliament.
A rival Shiite political group, dominated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has accused Sadr of trying to stage a ‘coup’ and staged its own protests, during a summer of unrest .
Sadr, a populist with hundreds of thousands of followers who opposed American and Iranian influence in Iraqcalled for early elections, as well as the exclusion from government of political figures who served after the 2003 US-led invasion.
“There is a power struggle at the heart of it all,” Jiyad said. Sadr “believes that his [bloc] is the only legal representative of the Shiites of Iraq, that he should take the reins, that he 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 problematic, and he is not a representative of Iraqi Shiites and should not be making the decisions.”
Sadr’s retirement announcement – one of at least half a dozen similar announcements he has made over the years – came after he was “pushed into a corner”, said Jiyad, by the political deadlock, but also a statement criticizing him issued on Monday by a cleric considered a supporter of Sadr’s family.
Sadr’s announcement amounted to a green light to his supporters, as well as a message to other Iraqi political factions, Jiyad said: “This is the level of violence he is trying to prevent, and that is how powerful his group is. Let him keep a lid on some of that anger. He noted that Sadr waited an entire day before calling on his followers to retreat.
As his followers retreated from the Green Zone on Tuesday, with a vast assortment of weapons, they left behind collapsed blast walls and a sea of spent bullet shells, which were quickly scavenged by children for be sold for scrap.
“Personally, I didn’t want to retreat,” said Mouamle Hassan, 21, who left the area with a rifle. “We have 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 said. “Now these corrupt militias have seen what we are capable of,” he said, referring to Sadr’s rivals.
Fahim reported from Istanbul.