Iraq 'being torn apart' as presidential palace stormed, national curfew imposed

·4-min read

Iraq has descended into violent chaos with the country's presidential palace stormed and a national curfew declared as fighting

At least 10 Iraqis have been killed after powerful Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said he would quit politics, prompting his loyalists to storm a palatial government complex in Baghdad and leading to clashes with rival Shi'ite groups.

Young men loyal to Sadr charged the government headquarters in Baghdad's secure Green Zone, once a palace of dictator Saddam Hussein.

A view of the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq August 29, 2022. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A view of the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, where fighting has erupted in the streets. Source: Reuters

Thousands took to the streets outside the area where they skirmished with supporters of Iran-allied groups with videos posted online showing violent clashes.

As gunfire echoed over the capital, some people were seen firing guns towards the ranks of supporters of Sadr, Reuters witnesses said, while others fired into the air in a country awash with weapons after years of conflict and unrest.

Supporters of rival groups also hurled rocks at each other.

The flare-up followed a political deadlock lasting months that has blocked the formation of a new cabinet.

The army swiftly ordered a curfew.

In addition to the at east 10 people killed, several dozen were injured, police and medical workers said.

"I hereby announce my final withdrawal," Sadr had announced earlier on Twitter, criticising fellow Shi'ite political leaders for failing to heed his calls for reform.

The clashes erupted hours after that declaration, prompting his supporters, who had already been staging a weeks-long sit-in at parliament in the Green Zone, to demonstrate and storm the main cabinet headquarters.

Some jumped into a swimming pool at the palace, cheering and waving flags.

Supporters of Iraqi populist leader Moqtada al-Sadr protest inside the Republican Palace in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq August 29, 2022. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
Supporters of Iraqi populist leader Moqtada al-Sadr protest inside the Republican Palace in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Source: Reuters
Supporters of Iraqi populist leader Moqtada al-Sadr swim as they protest inside the Republican Palace in the Green Zone, in Baghdad, Iraq August 29, 2022. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Loyalists of the cleric took of the palatial pool. Source: Reuters

Iraq vying to emerge from decades of conflict and sanctions

Iraq's military declared an open-ended curfew and urged the protesters to leave the Green Zone.

During the stalemate over forming a new government, Sadr has galvanised his legions of backers, throwing into disarray Iraq's effort to recover from decades of conflict and sanctions and its bid to tackle sectarian strife and rampant corruption.

Sadr, who has drawn broad support by opposing both US and Iranian influence on Iraqi politics, was the biggest winner from an October election but withdrew all his MPs from parliament in June after he failed to form a government that excluded his rivals, mostly Iran-backed Shi'ite parties.

Sadr has insisted on early elections and the dissolution of parliament.

He says no politician who has been in power since the US invasion in 2003 can hold office.

In Monday's announcement, Sadr said he would close his offices, without giving details, although he said cultural and religious institutions would remain open.

Fears of new civil conflict

Sadr's decision ramped up dangerous tensions among heavily armed Shi'ite groups.

Many Iraqis worry that moves by each Shi'ite camp could lead to new civil conflict.

"The (Iran) loyalists came and burned the tents of Sadrists, and attacked protesters," Kadhim Haitham, a supporter of Sadr, said.

Pro-Iran groups 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.

Sadr has withdrawn from politics and the government in the past and has also disbanded militias loyal to him.

But he retains widespread influence over state institutions and controls a paramilitary group with thousands of members.

He has often returned to political activity after similar announcements although the current deadlock in Iraq appears harder to resolve than previous periods of dysfunction.

The current impasse between Sadr and Shi'ite rivals has given Iraq its longest run without a government.

Iraq has struggled to recover since the defeat of the Islamic State group in 2017 because political parties have squabbled over power and the vast oil wealth possessed by Iraq, OPEC's second-largest producer.

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