Powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has withdrawn from politics, overnight dismantling his influential political movement in a move that has stunned his followers and handed a pre-election boost to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The young cleric announced in a handwritten note posted on his movement’s website Sunday that he was immediately withdrawing from politics and dissolving the party structure to protect his family’s reputation.
“I announce the closure of all offices and libraries in all religious, social and political fields,” the note read. “There is no (political) bloc that represents us from now on nor do we hold any positions inside or outside the government or parliament.”
In a speech in Najaf today Sadr reaffirmed that he was abandoning a formal role in political life. But his harsh, thinly veiled attack on the Iraqi prime minister made clear he would still be a powerful political force.
"Politics has become a gateway for injustice and carelessness, for abuses by a dictator and tyrant who controls the funds…attacks the cities and divide the sects." He called on Iraqis to vote in parliamentary elections and said they must seek out honest candidates.
Outside his organization’s information office in Sadr City, the huge Baghdad neighborhood that is the stronghold of his support and was renamed in honor of his father after the fall of Saddam Hussein, employees said they were notified by Facebook of the closure.
“It is a disaster for us but we are obedient,” said Haji Amri today after locking up the flag-draped building and turning away neighborhood women who had come seeking help. At the party’s political offices in central Baghdad Sunday, military guards had changed back into civilian clothing and were preparing to hand back government property.
“We are washing the cars to give them back to the government,” said a guard working on one of the armored four-wheel drives used by political officials.
The Sadr family, particularly Muqtada’s father, a grand ayatollah assassinated by Saddam Hussein, have been known for generations as champions of the poor and disenfranchised.
Political analysts say with elections scheduled for April, Mr. Maliki and his Dawa party stand to benefit from a huge bloc of Sadr voters who no longer have the Sadr movement as an option.
“Who is going to benefit from this? Al-Maliki,” says Iraqi analyst Saad Eskander. “Sadr is the only person in Iraq who could destroy al-Maliki because he is the head of the deprived section of society – he is the Robin Hood of Iraq."
In Sadr City, Amri said delegations from across the country were traveling to Najaf to try to persuade the cleric to change his mind.
Sadr’s note explained he was dissolving the political movement in response to corruption within the Sadr offices inside and outside Iraq.
The move followed a year-long anticorruption drive within the organization and the revelation that at least six Sadr members of parliament had voted in a secret ballot for higher pensions for parliamentary deputies already considered by most Iraqis to be vastly overpaid.
“I think he’s serious this time. He was disappointed by his men who betrayed him because he ran on the banner of honesty and anticorruption. When he found that some of his members of parliament voted in favor of the last pension law he was angry – he thought he was in control. He was never in control,” says Eskander.
Sadr has been both an unpredictable political force and the most influential Shiite leader in Iraq. In 2004 he and his paramilitary Mehdi Army posed the biggest challenge to US forces since they toppled Saddam Hussein. Pledging to drive out foreign occupiers, tens of thousands of Sadr’s followers – many of them poor and young – went out into the streets of Najaf, Karbala, and Sadr City under his direction to fight American soldiers.
Iraq later spiraled into civil war when the Mehdi Army and Al Qaeda fought for control of Baghdad.
Sadr later renounced violence and entered the political process, forming the biggest Shiite bloc in national elections and throwing his support behind Maliki’s coalition government.
Declaring that Maliki was becoming a dictator, he later withdrew much of his political support but never acted on threats to break apart the coalition government.
An adviser to Maliki says none of the six cabinet ministers belonging to the Sadr movement have officially tendered their resignations. He says they will know if the ministers don't show up to the weekly cabinet meeting.
“In the first place we don’t know yet whether this is a permanent decision or whether he will change his mind. He has changed his mind in the past,” says Ali al-Musawi, the prime minister’s spokesman. He added that he believed the move would likely encourage voters to seek a more ‘stable’ political presence.
Sadr’s announcement said select religious offices and media outlets would remain open, reorganized to fall under committees he was appointing or his direct supervision.
At least eight of the 40 members of parliament belonging to the Sadr organization have announced they are resigning. Others are expected to follow.
“The coming days will reveal more but I don’t think he’s coming back,” says Haji Amri. “Everyone is confused.”
One of the party members who tendered her resignation as a member of parliament said only Muqtada could comment on what comes next. “He is our leader and we follow him," she says.
In Sadr City, pre-election signs reading ‘we are with you’ and trumpeting Sadrist support for a campaign to free Iraqi detainees were set aside. In the neighborhood, posters featuring Sadr politicians urging voters to register were starting to be torn down.
Many Sadr loyalists said they would wait for instructions from religious scholars as to who to vote for now.
“We all follow the Najaf marjaia (the religious leadership). Whoever they tell us to vote for we will vote for,” said Hussein Qassim, a bakery worker.