ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Firebrand Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Friday said he would stand neutral amid ongoing anti-government protests, appearing to withdraw his support for the demonstrations that began in early October calling for the ouster of the ruling elite.
In a statement on his official twitter page, Sadr proclaimed success in mobilizing thousands of his supporters to partake in the “million-man” rally he called for to demand the expulsion of American forces from Iraq.
Read More: Thousands of Sadr, militia supporters attend anti-US march in Baghdad
The Shiite cleric called for the march from his semi-permanent residence in Iran, where he studies religious sciences in the city of Qom.
Sadr, a self-styled nationalist who purports to be against any type of foreign intervention in Iraqi affairs, appears to be getting closer to Iran after a US airstrike killed top Iranian general Qasim Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a close associate of Soleimani.
Following the killings of the two influential figures, Shia lawmakers allied with Sadr and Iranian-backed militias held a parliamentary session and voted on a non-binding resolution that demanded the Iraqi government remove all foreign forces from Iraq.
To rally popular support for his cause, Sadr then called for the march against the presence of US forces soon after he met with leaders of a number of Iran-backed militias in Qom.
Read More: From Iran, Sadr calls for 'million-man' march against US presence in Iraq
The influential cleric has repeatedly declared his support for anti-government protests that erupted in early October and have resulted in over 600 deaths amid an ongoing crackdown by security forces. While many questioned his backing—given the fact that his party leads one of two top blocs in the legislature—some welcomed it as moral support by a populist and self-described nationalist.
In a statement issued late Friday, Sadr expressed his regret for those who questioned him among the demonstrators in Baghdad and other provinces, saying, “I was their supporter after God, and I thought of them as supporters for me and Iraq.”
He continued, “However, from now on, I will try not to interfere with them, neither negatively or positively, until they take into account the fate of Iraq and its imminent danger.”
Sadr's supporters have already started to remove their tents from Baghdad’s Tahrir Square—which has been the epicenter of the demonstrations since they began in the capital—and in demonstration centers in Iraq's southern provinces.
Anti-government protesters rejected Sadr’s call for the anti-US march, which also included many anti-Israel slogans and continued their own separate demonstrations in Tahrir Square and other parts of the capital on Friday that resulted in the reported death of two protesters and 25 more wounded in clashes with security forces.
Witnesses said that the police used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse a protest when evening fell on the Muhammad al-Qasim Highway in the capital.
Protesters had blocked many roads in the capital after a deadline they set for the government to accept their demands for change expired. The forces, however, have re-opened these roads, with large convoys of them reportedly deployed to these areas to stop demonstrations.