On Monday, August 29, Iraqi Shia Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his decision to leave political life, tweeting that “I hereby announce my final withdrawal.” This decision comes after enduring political stalemate and public dissatisfaction since October of 2021’s parliamentary elections, in which he won a majority but was unable to form a government. The news accompanied mass protests, hundreds of injuries, and over 20 casualties.
Prior to his withdrawal from the political sphere, in June of 2022, al-Sadr ordered his parliamentary faction to resign en-masse; the following month, his supporters stormed the parliament and began participating in sit-ins in protest of the enduring political stalemate. Al Jazeera highlighted the voices of the Sadrist movement. One protester publicly stated that he "was protesting against ‘a corrupt and incapable government’ and would ‘sleep here’ in the gardens of parliament. ‘The people totally refuse the parties that have governed the country for 18 years,’ he said…Some spent the night inside the parliament with blankets spread out on the marble floors. Others took to the gardens, on plastic mats under palm trees."
The sit-ins, which have continued for over four weeks, showcased loyalty for al-Sadr, foreshadowing the disarray that would spring from al-Sadr’s announcement. According to the Arab Weekly, after al-Sadr announced his retirement from politics, “hundreds of his supporters rushed to the government palace, the seat of the caretaker government…The protesters used ropes to pull down cement barriers leading to the palace gates. Iraq's military called on the protesters to withdraw immediately from the Green Zone and to practice self-restraint ‘to prevent clashes or the spilling of Iraqi blood,’ according to a statement."
Monday’s demonstrations resulted in over 20 casualties and hundreds of injuries with violence continuing into the following day. Explained in Al-Arabiya, "fighting between rival Iraqi forces resumed Tuesday in Baghdad, where 23 supporters of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have been shot dead since Monday, according to the latest toll by medics… At least 380 people were also injured… Automatic weapon and rocket fire echoed throughout Baghdad from the high-security Green Zone, which houses government buildings and diplomatic missions.”
Discussed in Zawya, supporters of al-Sadr claim that pro-Iran groups, the political opposition, arrived at the protest, burned various Sadrist tents, and attacked protestors. Inversely, the alleged "blamed the Sadrists for the clashes and denied having shot at anyone. ‘It’s not true. If our people had guns, why would they need to throw rocks?’ said one militia member, who declined to be identified by name."
The political dissatisfaction was not limited to Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, but spread across the country. According to the Middle East Eye, "it didn't take long until the discord spread south to Shia-majority provinces where both Sadr and his Iranian-backed rivals enjoy huge support. The headquarters of many pro-Iran armed factions, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah, were torched, targeted with mortar bombs or simply shot at in Baghdad, Diwaniyah and Basra. According to local media, Sadr's supporters also stormed the provincial government building in the southern Dhi Qar governorate.They also reportedly did the same in the Wasit and Maysan governorates, as well as the cities of Nasiriyah and Hillah. Graffiti adorning the Maysan governorate building appeared to read ‘closed by the order of the people.’"
The legitimacey of Al-Sadr’s withdrawal announcement, however, is in question, as he has formerly made similar statements. The Saudi Gazette analyzes the current developments in light of al-Sadr's previous threats to leave politics: "This is not the first time al-Sadr, who has called for early elections and the dissolution of parliament, has announced his retirement from politics — and many dismissed Monday's move as another bluff to gain greater leverage against his rivals amid a worsening stalemate. The cleric has used the tactic on previous occasions when political developments did not go his way."
The Saudi Gazette further highlights the concern that this development may catapult Iraqi politics into escalated instability. Many are concerned that al-Sadr’s announcement is "a risky gambit and are worried about how it will impact Iraq's fragile political climate. By stepping out of the political process, al-Sadr is giving his followers, the most disenfranchised from the political system, the green light to act as they see fit. Al-Sadr derives his political power from a large grassroots following, but he also commands a militia. He also maintains a great degree of influence within Iraq's state institutions through the appointments of key civil servant positions. His Iran-backed rivals also have militia groups."
Neighboring countries have acted on this concern, fearful that the clashes will continue and spread. Written in the Jerusalem Post, "Iran has closed its borders with Iraq and urged its citizens to avoid travelling there, a senior official said on Tuesday, [August 30,] amid an eruption of violence after powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said he would quit politics…Due to safety concerns, it is necessary for Iranians to refrain from traveling to Iraq until further notice,’ state TV quoted Iran's deputy Interior Minister Majid Mirahmadi as saying. State TV said Iran had halted all flights to Iraq ‘until further notice because of the ongoing unrest.’"