Iraq descended deeper into chaos Monday after influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his “definitive retirement” from politics, sparking deadly clashes at Baghdad’s presidential palace and potentially opening the door for Iran-backed militia groups to emerge from the turmoil with more power.
Although his track record suggests the retirement won’t be permanent, Mr. al-Sadr’s exit from the Iraqi political scene immediately plunged the country into an uncertain future with significant consequences for U.S. national security and regional stability. The cleric’s unexpected move caps a tumultuous 10-month period of deadlock inside the Iraqi government after Mr. al-Sadr’s party captured the largest share of parliamentary seats in October’s elections but fell far short of the number needed to form a majority government.
The cleric, an Iraqi nationalist who achieved fame leading Shiite militias that battled the U.S.-run administration after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, has been battling for power with other Shiite groups, in particular the Iran-backed Coordination Framework. The clashes have virtually paralyzed the government since those elections and led to months of escalating protests and occupations of government buildings from Mr. al-Sadr’s legions of followers.
The U.S. still bases thousands of troops across Iraq, partly to keep down the Islamic State terrorist group, which once held broad swaths of the country, and partly to check Iran, which has pushed for more influence over its troubled neighbor as the instability has risen. Iran has deep links to fellow Shiite Islam groups inside Iraq and to the network of Shiite militias and their political wing that has battled Mr. al-Sadr for power.
With no clear path forward, the powerful cleric said he would leave politics and shutter all of his party offices.
“I’ve decided not to meddle in political affairs. I therefore announce now my definitive retirement,” he said in his announcement, according to English-language media translations.
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The move led to immediate violence in Baghdad. Mr. al-Sadr’s supporters stormed the government palace inside the city’s heavily fortified Green Zone and reportedly clashed with Iraqi security forces. At least 15 protesters were reported killed, according to the Reuters news agency. Dozens more were wounded by gunfire, tear gas and physical altercations with law enforcement, according to media reports from the ground.
Images of protesters inside the palace halls, some even bathing in the complex’s swimming pool, flooded social media as authorities tried to regain control of an increasingly volatile scene. The Iraqi military quickly imposed a nationwide curfew beginning at 7 p.m. local time and called on protesters to show restraint.
The United Nations mission in Iraq cast the protests as an “extremely dangerous escalation” that could quickly spiral out of control.
“The very survival of the state is at stake,” the mission’s statement said.
State Department officials condemned the violence but denied reports that the Biden administration ordered an evacuation of the huge U.S. Embassy inside the Green Zone.
“Reports of Embassy Baghdad being evacuated are false,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters. “Reports of unrest throughout Iraq today are disturbing as Iraqi institutions are not being allowed to function. … Now is the time for dialogue, and we urge all of those involved to remain calm and pursue peaceful avenues of redress.”
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Asked whether Secretary of State Antony Blinken would speak with Iraqi officials, Mr. Patel said there were no such plans to announce as of Monday afternoon.
An uncertain future
Within hours of Mr. al-Sadr’s announcement, some foreign policy observers quickly mocked the cleric and said the move is little more than showmanship. The charismatic cleric has made such retirement declarations several other times, only to eventually return to the political scene.
“By my account since 2003 this is the 6th time that Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr announces his retirement from politics. Each ‘retirement’ lasted an average of 8 months,” Iranian-born columnist Amir Taheri said in a Twitter post. “He is still short of Frank Sinatra’s 12 ‘final goodbye’ concerts.”
Despite having never formally served in the Iraqi government, Mr. al-Sadr has long been a pivotal player in the country’s politics. He rose to international prominence in the years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 by commanding militias that battled U.S. and coalition forces in a series of bloody battles.
Given that violent past, Mr. al-Sadr hardly qualifies as a U.S. ally in the traditional sense. Still, as the chief rival to Iran’s political proxies in Iraq, Mr. al-Sadr became a crucial figure in the battle for Iraq’s future.
The Biden administration’s handling of Iraqi politics over the past 10 months will be heavily scrutinized in the days and weeks to come.
Critics say that under President Biden and Mr. Blinken, the U.S. took too much of a hands-off approach to the turmoil in Baghdad and failed to fully grasp the potential for Mr. al-Sadr’s Shiite opponents, the Iran-backed Coordination Framework, to assume more power.
The total collapse of Iraq, or Iranian proxies claiming full control of the government, would represent a major foreign policy disaster for the Biden administration, especially just one year after the U.S. military withdrawal led to a second Taliban reign in Afghanistan.
The turmoil in Iraq also has escalated during U.S. negotiations with Tehran over its suspect nuclear programs. The administration is hoping to revive an Obama-era deal limiting that program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Foreign policy analysts say the administration should have done more to try to head off the chaotic situation unfolding in Baghdad and limit Iran’s influence in the region.
“Iran will likely emerge with a strengthened position in Baghdad, thwarting the will of an Iraqi electorate that overwhelmingly voted for change last October,” David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a recent piece for Foreign Policy magazine. “To be sure, it’s not clear that Washington could have prevented this outcome. In any event, it doesn’t appear that the administration made any concerted effort to forestall this scenario.
“All this matters because Iraq is important to the United States and its interests in the region,” said Mr. Schenker, who served as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs during the Trump administration. “Not only did thousands of Americans lose life and limb to help build a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, but, unlike Afghanistan, Iraq really is a counterterrorism partner with a real chance at becoming a full-fledged democracy. The country stands on vital geostrategic territory, holds the world’s fifth largest oil reserves, and is on the front line against Iran’s effort to expand its influence throughout the Middle East.”
In addition to diplomatic staff in Baghdad, the U.S. has about 2,500 troops stationed in Iraq even though its combat mission is technically over.
Those troops are stationed as part of an international mission to battle the Islamic State terrorist group. About 1,000 U.S. troops stationed in neighboring Syria are tasked with the same mission.
American forces in both countries have come under repeated rocket and drone attacks from Iran-backed militias belonging to Iraq’s Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella organization. U.S. troops responded forcefully last week with a series of airstrikes on militia facilities and weapons depots in Syria.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.