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Anti-US cleric says he’ll quit Iraqi politics

BAGHDAD — Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shi’ite cleric who became one of Iraq’s most powerful political leaders, said he was withdrawing from politics and would no longer be represented in the Iraqi government or Parliament.

In a statement released on his website Saturday, Sadr said: “I announce that I will not intervene in politics. No party represents us from now on in Parliament or in any position inside or outside the government.” He added that no one should claim to speak for his Sadrist Shi’ite party, the Ahrar bloc.

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The offices of his party will be shut down, he said, but the charities and educational groups he runs will remain open.

In the statement, Sadr said his move was to ‘‘preserve the reputation of the al-Sadr [family] and to put an end to all the wrongdoings that were conducted, or could be conducted, under their title.’’ It did not explain further.

On Sunday, hundreds of Sadr’s followers gathered near his office in Najaf, in southern Iraq, to urge him to reconsider his decision, saying that they needed his voice in political affairs. Sadr, 40, has made such announcements before and then has changed his mind. But his statement Saturday added a measure of uncertainty to the political situation in Iraq, just two months before national parliamentary elections.

Sadr’s party holds 40 seats in the 325-member Parliament, making it the largest single Shi’ite bloc, and it controls seven ministries in the government.

Sadr once directed a militia, the Mahdi Army, that fought US forces after the 2003 invasion and Iraq’s Sunnis during the country’s sectarian war that followed. He built a grass-roots political movement that has followed the model of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah by fusing Shi’ite faith, military strength, and populist programs to build political power.

He emerged from the national elections in 2010 as a kingmaker whose support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, at the urging of Iran, proved to be decisive.

The reasons for Sadr’s decision to withdraw from politics were not entirely clear. Ten members of his party in Parliament have announced that they will resign, but it is still uncertain whether other lawmakers or Cabinet members will step down.

“I resigned from Parliament as a response to our leader’s call, and will not participate in the coming election,” said one member of Sadr’s party, Zaineb al-Tai.

Some Iraqis said they viewed Sadr’s announcement as a positive development for Iraq, a step toward separating religion from politics, but others said they did not believe Sadr because he previously ordered members of his party to withdraw from the government, only to reverse his decision a few days later.

“I hope that Moqtada sticks to this decision,” said Walled al-Chalabi, 34, a Shi’ite shop owner in Baghdad. “Usually he changes his mind really soon. I wish that we could get rid of those Islamic politicians, both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and have a civil state instead, but we still have Maliki and Hakim, who are even worse than him.”

Ammar al-Hakim is the leader of another Shi’ite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

If Sadr retires from politics, his withdrawal is likely to help Maliki, especially if all the members of his bloc follow suit. That prospect disappointed some of Sadr’s supporters.

“Moqtada’s leaving now is for the benefit of Maliki, who is running for a third term,” said Ali al-Hussainy, a Shi’ite in Sadr City, the poor Baghdad neighborhood that bears the family name in honor of Sadr’s father, a revered cleric who was killed by Saddam Hussein’s forces. “I gave my voice to the Sadrists before, and now they leave and let us down.”

Several years ago, Sadr moved to Iran to pursue his religious studies, but he returned to Iraq in 2010, and now works mainly in Najaf.

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