BAGHDAD (AP) — At least one protester, a follower of an influential Shia cleric, was killed in clashes with Iraqi security forces who used tear gas, gunfire and physically pushed back crowds after hundreds stormed the government palace on Monday.
Three Iraqi officials confirmed the deaths in violence that erupted after the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, announced his resignation from Iraqi politics and his angry followers stormed the government palace in response.
Medical officials said 12 protesters injured by tear gas and physical altercations with riot police were taken to Ibn Sina hospital.
An Associated Press photographer heard shots fired and several injured protesters bled and were taken away.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Below is AP’s earlier story.
A hugely influential Shia cleric announced on Monday that he would resign from Iraqi politics and his angry followers stormed the government palace in response, fueling fears that violence could break out in a country already ravaged by the worst political crisis in Iraq. years.
The Iraqi military announced a city-wide curfew in the capital and the outgoing prime minister suspended cabinet sessions in response to the unrest.
Hundreds pulled down the concrete barriers outside the government palace with ropes and broke through the palace gates. Many rushed to the opulent salons and marble halls of the palace, an important meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.
Protests have also erupted in Shia-majority southern provinces. Supporters of al-Sadr burned tires and blocked roads in the oil-rich Basra province and hundreds demonstrated outside the Missan government building.
Iraq’s government has been deadlocked since cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s party won most of its seats in October’s parliamentary election, but not enough to secure a majority government, the longest since the US-led invasion political order was restored. His refusal to negotiate with Iran-backed Shia rivals and the subsequent termination of talks has catapulted the country into political uncertainty and volatility amid an intensification of intra-Shia squabbles.
To advance his political interests, al-Sadr has shrouded his rhetoric with a nationalist and reform agenda that resonates strongly with his broad base, who come from the poorest sectors of society in Iraq and have historically been kept out of the political system. They are calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections without the participation of Iran-backed groups, which they believe are responsible for the status quo.
Iran views discord within the Shia as a threat to its influence in Iraq and has repeatedly sought to establish a dialogue with al-Sadr.
In July, Al-Sadr’s supporters broke into parliament to prevent his rivals in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of mainly Iran-affiliated Shia parties, from forming a government. Hundreds of them have been sitting outside the building for more than four weeks. His bloc has also resigned from parliament. The Framework is led by al-Sadr’s main nemesis, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Having a say in the formation of the next government — dividing state resources and finances — has become a zero-sum game for political survival for the rival factions, exacerbated by al-Sadr’s reluctance to involve Iran-friendly groups in the process. The stalemate has ushered in a new era of instability and raised the specter of intrasectarian street fighting.
The palace break-in on Monday marked another escalation in the political struggle and the possibility of bloodshed.
This isn’t the first time al-Sadr, who has called for snap elections and the dissolution of parliament, has announced his retirement from politics – and many dismissed the latest move as another bluff to gain more leverage over his rivals amid a worsening stalemate. The cleric has used the tactic on previous occasions when political developments did not suit him.
But many are concerned that it is a risky move and concerned about the impact it will have on Iraq’s fragile political climate. By stepping out of the political process, al-Sadr gives his followers, who are the most excluded from the political system, the freedom to act as they see fit.
Al-Sadr derives his political power from a large following, but he also commands a militia. He also maintains a large degree of influence within Iraq’s state institutions through the appointment of key civil servant positions.
Its Iranian-backed rivals also have militia groups.
The Iraqi military quickly announced a citywide curfew on Monday in hopes of calming mounting tensions and avoiding the possibility of clashes. It called on the cleric’s supporters to immediately withdraw from the heavily fortified government zone and restrain themselves “to avoid clashes or the shedding of Iraqi blood,” a statement said.
“The security forces reaffirm their responsibility to protect government agencies, international missions, public and private property,” the statement said.
Iraqi interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called on al-Sadr to ask his followers to withdraw from government institutions. He also announced that cabinet meetings will be suspended.
The cleric announced his withdrawal from politics in a tweet and ordered the closure of his party offices. Religious and cultural institutions remain open.
Al-Sadr’s decision on Monday appeared to be in part a response to the retirement of Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, who considers many of al-Sadr’s supporters to be followers.
The previous day, al-Haeri announced that he would resign as a religious authority for health reasons and called on his followers to throw their allegiances behind Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rather than the Shia spiritual center in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf.
The move was a blow to al-Sadr. In his statement, he said al-Haeri’s resignation was “not of his own volition”.