After supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stormed a government building in Baghdad’s seat of power that has been a lightning rod since the US occupied Iraq in 2003, the Green Zone was once again the focus of political violence.
The unrest in Baghdad began Monday after al-Sadr, a beloved figure among Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims, announced his retirement from politics. In response to the rioting, authorities declared an open-ended curfew throughout Baghdad beginning at 3:30 p.m., according to the Iraqi News Agency. According to the Associated Press, the destabilising upheaval has killed 15, and it is the latest in the so-called Green Zone, a heavily defended region in central Baghdad that houses strong government institutions.
Iraq’s government has been paralysed since October 2021, when al-political Sadr’s party won the most seats in parliament but failed to gain a majority. The preacher and his supporters have remained at war with other Shiite organisations affiliated with Iran.Al-Sadr announced the closure of his political institutions in a tweet. In a statement, the cleric, who ascended to power following the US invasion of Iraq, said he intended to bring political leaders “closer to their people and understand their agony, hoping that it would be a path to God’s satisfaction.”
Following the 2003 invasion that overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the United States and its allies established the International Zone of Baghdad, also known as the Green Zone. The Green Zone was attacked by mortars and rockets during the sectarian turmoil that followed the invasion. Most Iraqis were barred from entering the strongly protected region, which was home to the occupying authority and government contractors. The Green Zone was turned over to Iraqi officials in 2009, although there were still concerns about attacks.
“Common sense indicates they’ll probably test the Green Zone,” U.S. Army Colonel Steve Ferrari said at the time, adding that the zone was a “symbol of Iraq’s sovereignty.”
Even as security was relaxed in the Green Zone, skirmishes between demonstrators and police continued. Rockets hit the US Embassy in 2020.
Last month, al-Sadr supporters stormed Green Zone buildings in protest of the political impasse. The declaration by al-Sadr appeared to refer to the retirement of Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, whose adherents overlapped with al- Sadr’s. The announcement of retirement Al-Haeri’s on Sunday urged his followers to seek advice from Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rather than Shiite religious officials in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf. The retirement of Al-Haeri appeared to present a legitimacy dilemma for Al-Sadr, who lacks the academic credentials required to be an ayatollah.
In a tweet, Abbas Kadhim, senior fellow and Iraq Initiative director at the Atlantic Council, expressed concern that “they are on their own in addressing the outraged masses on the streets.”
“If the situation is not resolved by the system’s internal devices,” he warned, “expect a declaration from the Shia highest authority in Najaf (G Ayatollah Sistani), who is Iraq’s last resort.”
One limitation should be noted: Sadrists must hear from Sadr in order to respond to Sistani’s request. The Supreme Federal Court of Iraq will convene on Tuesday to consider whether to dissolve parliament, though its competence to do so is unclear.