Powerful Iraqi Cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr Quits Politics, Sparking Deadly Protests 

In Baghdad, Iraq, supporters of the Iraqi political figure Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the Green Zone Monday night after al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from politics. At least 30 people have been killed and hundreds severely injured by tear gas and bullets after clashing with security guards in the capital.

Iraqi President Barham Salih said in a statement on Monday that, “the difficult circumstance that our country is going through requires everyone to abide by calm, restraint, prevent escalation, and ensure that the situation does not slip into unknown and dangerous labyrinths in which everyone will lose.”

The violence has also sparked an international response. Iran closed all land borders with Iraq till further notice, Turkey warned its citizens to avoid traveling to the region, and other actors such as Canada, the United States, the European Union, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres all expressed their concern and called for a peaceful end to the violence. These pleas for de-escalation are necessary as the civilian death toll continues to rise and protesters continue to violently engage with Iraqi security forces.

The political instability seen today can be traced back to over 10 months ago in October 2021 when al-Sadr was unable to assemble a parliament after elections that excluded his Iran-backed rivals. Instead, after months of political turmoil, al-Sadr called for a mass resignation from his bloc in June 2022, labeling the move “a sacrifice from me for the country and the people to rid them of the unknown destiny.” 73 members of Parliament resigned. 

Since their resignation, little has changed in Iraq’s tense political climate. These protests on Monday emerged roughly one month after al-Sadr’s followers staged a sit-in at Iraq’s Parliament that lasted numerous days at the end of July. Their demands included “early elections, constitutional amendments and the oust[ing] of al-Sadr’s opponents,” according to NPR. 

The calls for early elections, however, may pose negative long-term consequences, explained Harvard University research fellow, Marsin Alshamary. Alshamary told Al Jazeera that early elections would “give Iraqis a sense that they really don’t have a say in how the electoral process unfolds in their country because it can really be ignited by one unruly and unhappy political figure.”

The implications of having a dysfunctional caretaker government since October have been deeply worrying. Without the parliament operating, schools and hospitals have suffered, and basic necessities such as water and electricity are becoming hard to provide to ordinary citizens, causing widespread concern. 

Al-Sadr claimed he hoped his resignation would help resolve the gridlock in Iraq’s government, but based on the deadly protests that have occurred since Monday it seems his announcement has only done the opposite.