Protests in Iraq turn deadly after prominent cleric quits politics

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BAGHDAD — Supporters of a prominent Shiite cleric stormed Iraq’s presidential palace on Monday in an outburst of anger over the cleric’s vow to quit politics that sparked clashes with security forces and left at least 12 people dead, health officials said.

By late evening, gunfire and explosions rattled windows across the capital, as long-simmering political disputes gave way to the deployment of heavy weapons and mortar shells.

The violence was most severe during a summer of troubles in Iraq, which has been without a government for much of the year and captive to escalating feuds between political factions, including supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and rival Shiite groups backed by the Iran.

Sadr’s supporters stormed the palace on Monday after announcing his “permanent” retirement from politics – a threat he has already made for years in the public eye, but which could have more serious consequences in the charged political climate and with the country governed by an interim government.

‘You are free from me,’ Sadr told supporters in a resignation message posted on Monday afternoon. on Twitter.

The fallout was immediate. Sadr’s supporters, who had staged a sit-in inside the Green Zone, where government offices and diplomatic missions are located, scaled the gates of the palace and marched through its ornate halls, in scenes shared on social networks. Shortly after, sounds of live ammunition echoed through the capital as security forces swooped down on protesters.

Elsewhere in Iraq, Sadr’s supporters blocked roads and government buildings, including in Basra to the south. The UN mission in Iraq called the developments an “extremely dangerous escalation” and implored protesters to withdraw from the Green Zone.

“Iraqis cannot be held hostage to an unpredictable and untenable situation. The very survival of the state is at stake,” the mission said in a statement.

Iraq’s political dysfunction – a feature of civic life since the US invasion nearly two decades ago entrenched a sectarian and kleptocratic order – entered its final phase in October, when Sadr won the biggest number of seats in parliament but failed to form a government. After months of political paralysis, Sadr withdrew his lawmakers from the legislature in June and sent his supporters to occupy parliament.

A rival political bloc, made up of Shiite groups backed by Iran, has also staged protests and sit-ins in the Green Zone, raising fears of a confrontation. In the context of political infighting, the Iraqis have suffered a lotas public institutions, from schools to hospitals, deteriorate without government support.

Sadr, a populist who opposed both American and Iranian influence in Iraq, called for early elections, as well as the banning of political figures who served after the American invasion from working in the government.

The reasons for his latest political gamble were unclear, but it came the same day an aging cleric seen as a Sadr supporter and his family announced his own retirement, in a statement containing several digs at Sadr.

The statement by Grand Ayatollah Kadhim Husayni al-Haeri, who lives in Iran, called on his followers to support Iran’s supreme leader – rather than Iraq-based Shia clerics – and also criticized Sadr, without naming him, suggesting that he did not have the “requisite” for leadership.

The statement had a “great impact” on Sadr, who likely believed his Iran-backed Shiite rivals were behind the cleric’s retirement, said Ali Al-Mayali, an Iraqi political analyst. These rivals, he said, had rejected Sadr’s attempts to form a government.

“From the start, the Sadrists hinted at civil disobedience as their last choice. I believe Sadr’s tweet… is the green light for civil disobedience as his last step” against his Shiite rivals, Mayali said.

As night fell, there were unconfirmed reports of armed attacks on facilities used by Iran-backed Shia militias across the country, including in Basra.

On Monday, health officials did not identify the victims of the violence in Baghdad, but said some had been shot in the chest or stomach. A statement released late Monday by Iraqi interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said the use of live ammunition by security forces was “strictly prohibited”, and he called for the protection of protesters.

Fahim reported from Istanbul.

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