Powerful Shiite cleric quits Iraqi politics in shock move
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Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most influential political and religious figures of post-Saddam Iraq, said Sunday he is quitting Iraqi politics in a shock announcement that comes just two months before legislative elections.
Sadr seemed to suggest the Sadrist movement he leads, a major layer in the Iraqi government, will also be ending its political activities.
"I announce my non-intervention in all political affairs and that there is no bloc that represents us from now on, nor any position inside or outside the government nor parliament," Sadr said in a written statement received by the AFP news agency.
Sadr's group currently holds six cabinet posts as well as 40 seats in the 325-member parliament.
He also said his movement's political offices will be closed, but that others related to social welfare, media and education will remain open.
The announcement appeared to take the cleric’s followers by surprise, with Sadrist officials unable to clarify if the decision to end the group’s involvement in politics was permanent or temporary.
One official from Sadr's office told AFP that no one wanted to discuss the issue "because it was a surprise decision".
"I do not think it will be reversed... because it is a very strong decision," the official added however.
Fierce critic of US
If confirmed as permanent, Sadr's announcement brings to a close a political career spanning more than a decade.
It began with his sharp criticism of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, with his movement subsequently gaining seats in parliament, cabinet posts and playing the role of political kingmaker.
Sadr's widely-feared Mahdi Army militia also repeatedly fought American forces, and played a major role in the brutal sectarian conflict between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites in which tens of thousands of people died.
Sadr suspended the militia's activities in 2008 following major battles with Iraqi and US security forces.
Sadr said the decision to leave politics was taken from the standpoint of Islamic law and of "preserving the honourable reputation of Sadr, especially of the two Sadr martyrs," referring to his father and another relative who were killed during Saddam Hussein's rule.
The move also aims to "end all the corruptions that occurred or which are likely to occur" that would harm the Sadr reputation, he said.
Iraq has seen a surge in violence in recent months as the country prepares for its first national elections since the 2011 US military withdrawal, due to take place on April 30th.
Earlier this month, electoral candidate and Sadr supporter Hamza al-Shammari was shot dead in an attack by gunmen in the capital Baghdad.
Candidates have been targeted by insurgents in the past, with nearly 20 hopefuls killed ahead of April 2013 provincial council elections.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)