Iraqi Shiite cleric plans to resign; followers storm palace

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BAGHDAD (AP) — A hugely influential Shiite cleric announced he would resign from Iraqi politics on Monday and his angry followers stormed the government palace in response, sparking fears that violence could erupt in a country already beset by its worst political crisis in years.

Iraq’s government has been deadlocked since cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in October parliamentary elections but not enough to secure a majority government. He refused to negotiate with Iran-backed Shiite rivals to form a consensus government.

In July, his supporters broke into the parliament to deter al-Sadr’s rivals from forming a government and have been staging a sit-in outside the building for over four weeks. His bloc has also resigned from parliament.

This is not the first time al-Sadr, who has called for early elections and the dissolution of parliament, has announced his retirement from politics — and many dismissed the latest move as another bluff to gain greater leverage against his rivals amid a worsening stalemate. The cleric has used the tactic on previous occasions when political developments did not go his way.

But many are concerned that it’s a risky gambit and are worried how it will impact Iraq’s fragile political climate.

On Monday, hundreds pulled down the cement barriers outside the Republican Palace with ropes and breached the palace gates. Many rushed into the lavish salons and marbled halls of the palace, a key meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.

Iraq’s military swiftly announced a city-wide curfew on Monday in the hopes of calming rising tensions and heading off the possibility of clashes. It called on the cleric’s supporters to withdraw immediately from the heavily fortified government zone and to practice self-restraint “to prevent clashes or the spilling of Iraqi blood,” according to a statement.

“The security forces affirm their responsibility to protect government institutions, international missions, public and private properties,” the statement said.

The cleric announced his withdrawal from politics in a tweet, and ordered the closure of his party offices. Religious and cultural institutions will remain open.

Al-Sadr’s decision on Monday appeared to be a reaction to the retirement of Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri, who counts many of al-Sadr’s supporters as followers. The previous day, al-Haeri announced he would be stepping down as a religious authority and called on his followers to throw their allegiance behind Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rather than the Shiite spiritual center in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf.

The move was a blow to al-Sadr. In his statement he said al-Haeri’s stepping down “was not out of his own volition.”