At least 30 people were killed as supporters of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr and his Iran-backed opponents traded gunfire overnight on Monday and Tuesday morning in Baghdad, stoking fears that the violence might escalate into a Shia-Shia civil war.
The worst violence in the Iraqi capital in years followed the influential Shia leader’s announcement that he would “withdraw from politics” after months of political deadlock. Analysts have said al-Sadr’s drastic step appeared to be in response to the resignation of Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri on Sunday. Many of al-Sadr supporters follow al-Haeri.
The surprise resignation of al-Haeri and his appeal to his followers to support Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was a blow to al-Sadr, who has opposed Iranian influence in Iraqi politics.
More than 700 people have also been wounded in the deadly fighting between fighters aligned with al-Sadr and the Popular Mobilisation Forces security group aligned to Iran.
The tensions only dissipated after al-Sadr called on Tuesday for his supporters to withdraw from the fortified Green Zone – home to government buildings and foreign embassies – “within an hour”.
“I apologise to the Iraqi people, the only ones affected by the events,” al-Sadr said in a televised speech.
Within minutes, the armed group backing him, Saray al-Salam, had left the Green Zone, bringing calm to what had turned into a battlefield. Still, the situation has remained tense, and fears of escalations have remained.
“This [the violence] was certainly the possible beginning or spark of a Shia-Shia civil war,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi political analyst at the Century Foundation.
“The violence may have subsided for now, but retributions are to be expected. This violence is indicative of the bitter divisions and deadlock in Iraqi politics. It may be ratcheted down for now, but without a proper solution it will appear again in the future,” he added.
‘Click of a finger’
In advance of al-Sadr’s televised speech, attempts to de-escalate were unsuccessful and calls for Ayatollah Sayyid Sistani and the Grand Marji’a, the Shia religious leadership in Najaf, to intervene, appeared to fall on deaf ears.
“We were expecting Grand Ayatollah Sistani to come out with a statement to say that the spilling of Muslim blood is forbidden and that state properties should be protected,” Marsin Alshamary, an Iraqi analyst and research fellow at the Middle East Initiative, said before al-Sadr’s statement.
“When it comes to a Shia-Shia war, if things get particularly bad, there are two forces that will try to work against that – Iran and Grand Ayatollah Sistani,” she explained, adding that Iran wants to preserve the status quo with its political parties in power, while Sistani intervenes during times of political chaos.
Instead, the fighting – triggered by al-Sadr’s apparent resignation from politics – also subsided with a word from him.
“Sadr has demonstrated that he can mobilise and demobilise with a word,” said Iraqi analyst Fanar Haddad. “He can click his fingers and threaten the entire edifice. Then, he can click his fingers and save the entire edifice.”
Iraq-focused analyst Tamer Badawi agreed, saying that al-Sadr “increased his leverage because authorities and his nemeses needed him to step in again to cease the mobilisation of his followers”.
“Sadr has been keen on positioning himself as the Iraqi politics kingmaker even if his actions ostensibly show otherwise,” he added.
Al-Sadr’s resignation appeared to trigger a serious threat to Iraq’s stability, one that has not been witnessed in recent years.
“We had clashes like this before, but on a much smaller scale and not as widespread across the country,” said Jiyad.
“Both sides tried to gain or hold onto territory in and around the Green Zone and targeted each other’s office,” he added, explaining that al-Sadr’s Saray al-Salam and the rival Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi appeared to have an “appetite for violence” which could have developed into an all-out war if the Hashd had deployed its full strength.
A principal fear before al-Sadr’s statement, which quelled the fighting, was that it would spread across Iraq’s mainly Shia south.
“If the conflict between the Sadrists and pro-Iran axis groups went beyond Baghdad and spread to the south, on a scale similar to that of what occurred in the Green Zone … there would have been a genuine risk for protracted conflicts,” said Badawi.
“Southern Iraq is already mired with lawlessness, organised crime, and tribal conflicts that can fuel the conflict between local militant leaders,” he added, explaining that such a development would have increased insecurity, even if not a full-scale civil war.
But for Haddad, even if al-Sadr had not come out to condemn the violence, prospects of a civil war were unlikely.
“There’s been a clear pullback since Sadr’s statement, but the prospect of a Shia-Shia civil war was still slim despite the danger of an unplanned escalation,” Haddad told Al Jazeera. “None of the main protagonists want to go toward civil war. All stand to lose too much,” he added.
Why this time?
Al-Sadr has announced his withdrawal from politics at least seven times since 2013, reflecting continuing intra-Shia tensions that have mired Iraqi politics since President Saddam Hussain’s overthrow in a US-led invasion in 2003.
But analysts have said the reason this withdrawal triggered such tensions relates to a series of events that preceded al-Sadr’s resignation, and which made him feel he was at a dead end.
“Sadr has resigned before, but things escalated because he felt his opponents had used one of the sneakiest tactics – going to a cleric and asking him to denounce Sadr,” Jiyad told Al Jazeera, referring to Haeri’s resignation and his call for support for Iran’s Khamenei, rather than the Shia spiritual centre in Najaf.
Al-Sadr considered the move a blow to his legitimacy and credentials, since Haeri had provided him with the legitimacy he lacked as a religious authority without scholarly credentials to be an ayatollah.
“He wanted to send a message that he was the one who kept his followers in check and if he steps back, they are willing to do whatever,” said Jiyad, referring to al-Sadr’s resignation. “This was him saying I’m out of options and I’m not willing to compromise.”
Al-Sadr pulled out of general elections in July, before being dragged in again by his opponents. His party won the largest number of seats in the October elections, but the rival Iran-backed Coordination Framework challenged the results and prevented him from forming a government of his choice with Kurdish and Sunni allies.
Unable to form a government of his liking, he offered the Coordination Framework some government seats – an offer they refused. Al-Sadr reacted by pulling his bloc from parliament, as his supporters staged protests and sit-ins in the Green Zone. The escalation prolonged Iraq’s months-long political crisis and leaders’ inability to form a government.
And despite taking some responsibility for the recent flare-up as he condemned the violence by his supporters, al-Sadr continued to refuse compromise in his televised address.
“Sadr signalled that his opponents would have to find a solution,” said Jiyad. “He will not form a government with all the Coordination Framework included and they will not have a functioning government without him.”