Protests and clashes broke out across the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Monday evening, carrying into Tuesday morning, and leaving at least 30 dead, after influential Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from Iraqi politics.
The fighting, however, ended as quickly as it started after al-Sadr ordered his followers to withdraw from the Green Zone on Tuesday, saying that their actions were not “revolutionary” and that “the spilling of Iraqi blood is forbidden”.
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The events of Monday and Tuesday were the latest for a figure who has long wielded outsize influence in Iraq, a country that has contended with instability, economic strife and deadly unrest as various forces have vied for influence in the wake of the United States invasion in 2003.
Al-Sadr has been a leading, if enigmatic, voice in the country throughout the last 20 years, heading a powerful militia that fought against foreign coalition forces and in the resulting sectarian violence of the Iraqi civil war that followed. His brigades later re-mobilised to fight the ISIL (ISIS) group.
Al-Sadr has used calls to eject what he describes as Iraq’s corrupt political elite and reject foreign interference. He fomented a years-long protest movement, which remains a powerful force in the country. Those often deadly protests have been driven by parliamentary gridlock, the high cost of living and a lack of basic services in the country.
Here are the events that preceded the most recent unrest:
Al-Sadr’s bloc, which included an unconventional alliance of communists and secular Iraqis, won a surprise victory in parliamentary elections, claiming 54 seats. The poll, which was marred by allegations that it was not free and fair, led to months of political gridlock, which eventually resulted in Adel Abdul-Mahdi being selected as prime minister.
Seemingly spontaneous protests broke out in Baghdad and in cities across Iraq’s south over unemployment, poor services and corruption. The protests largely cut across ethnic and sectarian lines and were not backed by any political movement.
Al-Sadr, whose political coalition won the most seats in last year’s elections, urged legislators to boycott sessions until the protesters’ demands were met. He called for early elections.
In the following months, protesters railed against Western and Iranian influences in Iraq.
Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi announced his resignation, kicking off six months of uncertainty that eventually ended with the May 2020 election of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
A US drone attack killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as they travelled near Baghdad’s international airport.
Al-Sadr called on his supporters to take part in a “million man march” to demand the complete withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Baghdad.
But shortly after the event, al-Sadr withdrew his support for the protest movement, which no political figure or party has yet to back.
The move, according to Middle East Institute analyst Randa Slim “opened the way for security forces to move against the civilian protesters, burning their tents, firing tear gas and bullets, and killing and wounding them”.
February 2020 to July 2021
Significant protests continued across Iraq, with al-Sadr’s supporters at times clashing with other protesters, notably in the holy city of Najaf in February 2020. The overall protest movement left at least 560 protesters and members of Iraq’s security forces dead.
Meanwhile, al-Sadr’s supporters continued to hold protests calling for the US to withdraw from Iraq and early elections.
In July 2021, Prime Minister al-Kadhimi announced elections would be held in June 2021, instead of those previously scheduled for 2022. But the elections were delayed until October 2021.
In parliamentary elections, al-Sadr’s movement won 73 seats, more than any other group in the fractious 329-seat body. Several pro-Iranian Shia groups opposed to al-Sadr alleged fraud and protests broke out. Nevertheless, the country’s Supreme Court ratified the results in December.
Prior to the polls, al-Sadr said he would boycott the election, only to reverse his position. Ruba Ali Al-Hassani, a postdoctoral researcher at Lancaster University & Project SEPAD, told Al Jazeera that the move appeared to be a strategic manoeuvre to gain leverage with politicians.
November 7, 2021
An assassination attempt on Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi underscored the increased instability in the wake of the election. Although no groups claimed responsibility, it was widely suspected to be the work of pro-Iranian militias upset over the election results. The attempted killing raised the prospect of further escalation between Shia groups.
The attack followed deadly protests outside of Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone.
January 9, 2022
The new parliament’s first session was disrupted by an alliance of Iran-backed Shia factions, called the Coordination Framework Alliance (CFA). Legislators went on to pick incumbent Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi for a second term.
Analysts said increased violence in the Iraqi capital in the wake of the session, which included a hand grenade thrown at the headquarters of the Taqaddum (Progress) party, led by al-Halbousi, and another attack on a Sunni politician, underscored ongoing tensions between ethno-sectarian groups.
February 7, 2022
Iraqi legislators failed to elect a new president, after al-Sadr called for boycott. Al-Halbousi’s bloc and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) also boycotted the polls.
Al-Sadr coordinated the move after Iraq’s Supreme Court temporarily suspended the nomination of frontrunner Hoshyar Zebari, citing pending corruption charges. Zebari’s presidential bid, which was supported by al-Sadr, was later barred by the country’s Supreme Court.
New protests took place in Iraq’s south as prices of goods – including cooking oil and flour – skyrocketed, with officials blaming the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Iraqi legislators failed for a third time to elect a president as tensions between Shia groups continued.
June 12, 2022
Urged by their leader, members of al-Sadr’s alliance resigned from parliament en masse, in a bid to break the eight months of political deadlock.
In a statement, al-Sadr called the move “a sacrifice from me for the country and the people to rid them of the unknown destiny”. The move was considered a big political gamble that essentially handed power to opposing Shia groups aligned with Iran.
June 16, 2022
Al-Sadr announced that he would “not participate in the next elections if the corrupt participate” and doubled down on his bloc’s resignation.
July 27, 2022
Days after a mass prayer gathering that underscored al-Sadr’s continued popularity, hundreds of his followers stormed the parliament building in Baghdad in protest at the CFA’s pick for prime minister.
July 30, 2022
Al-Sadr’s supporters storm parliament for a second time in a week, escalating a political standoff. This time they erected tents and prepared for a prolonged sit-in.
All sessions of the assembly were cancelled amid the protest, effectively halting efforts by the CFA to try and form the next government.
August 3, 2022
Al-Sadr urged supporters to continue the sit-in until demands, including the dissolution of parliament and early elections, were met.
August 5, 2022
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis participated in a mass prayer inside Baghdad’s Green Zone which al-Sadr had called.
August 14, 2022
Days after al-Sadr gave Iraq’s top judicial body one week to dismiss the legislature so new elections could be held, the Supreme Judicial Council said it did not have the authority to do so.
The announcement came as protests spread outside of the judicial body’s headquarters.
August 23, 2022
After blocking Iraq’s judiciary, al-Sadr called on his supporters to withdraw from its headquarters.
Al-Sadr called on his supporters to continue the sit-in at parliament, with the country’s Supreme Court agreeing to judge whether it could dissolve parliament.
August 28, 2022
In a surprise move, Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri stepped down from his position as a religious leader calling on his supporters to back Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The move was seen as undercutting al-Sadr’s legitimacy with al-Haeri’s followers.
Al-Haeri, who is based in Qom, Iran, had once provided al-Sadr with religious legitimacy by designating him as his representative in Iraq.
The leader enjoyed the support of many of al-Sadr’s followers.
In a tweet following al-Haeri’s resignation, al-Sadr alleged the religious leader’s move “was not out of his own volition”.
August 29-30, 2022
Al-Sadr announced what he described as his “final withdrawal” from politics, a move met with scepticism from longtime Iraq analysts.
He added that “all the institutions” linked to his Sadrist Movement would be closed, except the mausoleum of his father, assassinated in 1999, and other heritage facilities.
The long-running protests by al-Sadr supporters quickly swelled with hundreds of thousands joining in demonstrations and storming the Republican Palace in the Green Zone.
Iraq’s military announced a nationwide curfew, and the caretaker premier suspended cabinet sessions in response to the violence.
As night fell, Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigade), a militia aligned with al-Sadr that said it had deployed to the Green Zone to protect protesters, clashed with the Popular Mobilisation Forces security group, tied to the CFA. Iraqi military units were also deployed to the area.
Protests also broke out in Iraq’s Shia-dominated south.
At least 30 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.
The head of the Sadrist parliamentary bloc Hassan Al-Athary later announced in a Facebook post that al-Sadr began a hunger strike “until the violence and use of weapons” end.
Meanwhile, the UN mission in Iraq called the protests an “extremely dangerous escalation” and called on demonstrators to vacate all government buildings to allow the caretaker government to continue running the state.
On August 30, al-Sadr called on supporters to withdraw from Green Zone completely.