Nabeel Zafar describes the recent flare-up of Violence erupts in Iraq
Violence erupts in Iraq has been unsettled for decades and remains a powder keg in the vital Middle East region having the potential to cause widespread disruption. This reality has been emphasised upon quite regularly as different armed groups in the country are vying for taking control at the centre. The absence of a well-entrenched dispensation at the centre having appropriate support of all influential segments of the country is encouraging the disparate groups to create chaos in their bid to gain ascendance. The region has continued to be unstable despite efforts of many international players to settle its contentious affairs. Iraq and Syria still remain the hub of non-state actors trying to gain ascendancy through use of force that keeps the region in turmoil. The political opponents have shown marked reluctance to come to the negotiation table and even when some of them want to, they are opposed by factions within them who prefer hard line action to be taken.
In a recent development Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his withdrawal from politics and the closure of his institutions over the political deadlock in the country. The move prompted violent clashes across Baghdad that left at least 10 people dead. Muqtada al-Sadr stated that he does not want to meddle in political affairs and announced his definitive retirement. Al-Sadr, a longtime player in the Middle East nation’s political scene, criticised fellow Shi’ite political leaders for failing to act upon his calls for reform. Without elaborating on the closure of his offices, al-Sadr said that some of his cultural and religious institutions would remain open.
This is not the first time Muqtada al-Sadr has said he was retiring, prompting critics to accuse him of bluffing to gain political leverage. As news of the violence caused by clashes between his supporters and rival groups began to spread, al-Sadr announced that he was beginning a hunger strike until the clashes ceased. His announcement was followed by hundreds of his supporters rushing to the government palace, which houses the main offices of Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Kadhimi said he was suspending all cabinet meetings until further notice and his government appears unable to contain the violence and control the situation. This highly fluid situation plays in the hands of the violent proxy groups that run amok in the length and breadth of the country.
Protesters used ropes to pull down cement barriers leading to the seat of the government, prompting Iraq’s military to call for an immediate withdrawal from the Green Zone. The military urged protesters to practice self-restraint to prevent clashes or the spilling of Iraqi blood. The statement emphasised their firm support for their responsibility to protect government institutions, international missions, public and private properties. The army then announced it was imposing a 3:30 p.m. curfew for all of Baghdad, but that did little to deter al-Sadr’s followers, who pushed into the Republican Palace chanting the people want to overthrow the regime.
As the situation escalated, the curfew was later extended, with all of Iraq required to be indoors by 7pm.
Witnesses told reporters that they heard live fire and saw security services use tear gas inside the fortified Green Zone. Outside the Green Zone government compounds and embassies, dozens of young men loyal to al-Sadr and supporters of a rival Shi’ite group, the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, hurled stones at each other in street clashes. Later, police and medical personnel said that at least ten people had died and that 85 were injured in the violence. There were also reports that protests had spread outside of Baghdad, including demonstrators blocking access to the airport in key port city of Umm Qasr, 560 km from the capital.
Despite winning the largest share of seats in last October’s elections, a political impasse between al-Sadr and his Iran-linked Shi’ite rivals has given Iraq its longest run without a government. In June, he withdrew his lawmakers from the parliament after failing to form a government of his choosing. Since last month, his supporters have occupied parliament and held protests near government buildings. With the process of choosing a new president and prime minister halted, many fear that al-Sadr’s supporters may escalate their protests, pushing the conflict-ravaged country into a new phase of instability.
With the Green Zone becoming a danger zone the White House stated that the US was not evacuating its embassy in Iraq urging calm in the country, saying now is the time for dialogue, not confrontation. Without doubt, reports today of unrest throughout Iraq are disturbing as they have the potential to spill over in the region as had happened in the past. According to state media in neighbouring Kuwait, however, their government was urging all its citizens in Iraq to leave. TW