By Tal Heinrich | August 30, 2022
Protests and clashes erupted in Baghdad on Monday when hundreds of demonstrators stormed the government palace and confronted security forces, resulting in 20 people killed as of Tuesday morning.
The unrest came after powerful Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his resignation from politics. He had been a prominent social and political leader in Iraq over the past two decades, responsible for forming the anti-Iran, Shi’ite “Sadrist Movement,” named for him, which has followers in the millions, as well as a militia called the “Mahdi Army” – or, “the Army of Messiah.”
Al-Sadr said in a statement that he has “decided not to interfere in political affairs” and indicated that “all [Sadrist] institutions” will be closed.
Activists posted pictures on social media showing dozens of protesters inside the palace’s swimming pool. They were able to break in after members of the government’s security forces reportedly withdrew from the area to avoid a bloodbath.
The palace is located in the city’s heavily guarded “Green Zone,” which is close to the Iraqi parliament building and foreign embassies, including for the United States. Early reports and videos posted on social media indicate that the U.S. has evacuated embassy employees with helicopters. However, Washington later denied the rumors.
In October, al-Sadr’s party won the most seats in the Iraqi parliament but al-Sadr was not able to secure a majority government given his refusal to work with Iranian-backed Shiite lawmakers. He ordered his legislators to resign, causing a further spiral of the country’s political deadlock.
The Shiite cleric was outspoken against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, after the toppling of Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein, and its continued military presence in the country. He also has been critical of the Iraqi government and Iran’s meddling in national internal affairs.
Hundreds of al-Sadr’s supporters camped outside the parliament’s building for weeks, after storming it in protest about a month ago. Their major demand is that all Iranian militias exit the country.
This is not the first time al-Sadr has stated a decision to withdraw from political life and disperse his militias; he did both several times in the past but eventually returned to an influential position.
Iran closed its border with Iraq preventing pilgrims who were planning to visit Shiite sites in the neighboring country. Kuwait also urged its citizens to leave Iraq.