Iraqi militias are clashing in the capital and elsewhere across the country as tensions flare up relating to neighbouring Iran’s influence in the Middle Eastern state. At least 30 people have been killed and hundreds wounded.
What is happening in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities?
After facing off for months, Shia Muslim groups are fighting one another across the country. The battles are centred mainly in Baghdad’s green zone – which once housed US forces – but have extended to towns and cities in the south. The spark for the unrest was the resignation in frustration from political life of the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
What was the political backdrop to the unrest?
Sadr’s political bloc performed strongly in elections 10 months ago, while rival Iran-backed Shia blocs performed poorly. But a standoff since has failed to produce a coalition that could form a government in the 329-seat parliament. Government formation is usually laborious in Iraq, but this time there is little will to compromise.
Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?
Sadr has been one of the most prominent figures in Iraq since the US invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. Now 48, the cleric has gained a huge following among the Shia working poor and some of the middle classes, and has had a hot-cold relationship with Tehran. Once a hardline protagonist in Iraq’s civil war, he now claims nationalist credentials, confronting Iranian influence in Iraq and calling for the country’s Sunnis to be re-enfranchised and for all foreign forces, including Iran, to leave the country. Widely known to be volatile and unpredictable, he has proven a difficult figure to gauge or deal with.
Why did he say he was resigning from politics?
Sadr said he is leaving politics and closing all Sadrist institutions after failed efforts to form a government. He is no stranger to quitting, having done so seven times before in various acts of political posturing. However, this time he has put all he has on the line, vowing to break a system that he says has failed the country.
Why did he quit now?
Sadr’s withdrawal came after the resignation of his spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, who in a surprise statement urged him to follow Iran. The highly unusual statement was damaging to Sadr and widely thought to have been directed by Iran.
What is Iran’s role in Iraqi politics?
Iran and Iraq are majority Shia countries and since 2003, Iran has had a growing presence in the country. It heavily backed Shia groups, including the Sadrists, during the civil war, while building its own proxies, such as Asa’ib ahl al-Haq and Keta’ib Hezbollah, as powerful militias that operate outside state structures. At the same time, it has established a foothold in the Iraqi parliament and in various arms of government. Iran sees Iraq as a vital arena for its regional power projection.
What might happen next?
In taking on Sadr like this, Iran has potentially opened a battle that it cannot win. Sadr can command the loyalty of close to 7 million Shias across the country, and has access to large stashes of weapons. How far this confrontation will lead will be determined by how staunch Sadr is in his attempts to break the system. He has earned a reputation as a capricious figure whose convictions can readily fade.