Powerful Iraqi Shiite Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Calls For Assad to Step Down Following Chemical Attack

Muqtada al-Sadr
Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr delivers a sermon to worshippers during Friday prayers at the Kufa mosque near Najaf, Iraq September 23, 2016. The religious leader has called on the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters

Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr has called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power in the wake of a chemical attack that killed more than 80 people in Idlib province April 4.

Sadr is the first Shiite political leader to urge Assad to give up power, Reuters reported. The religious leader has a huge following particularly among Baghdad's majority Shiite community, but holds no official political office.

The cleric also commands the allegiance of a number of militias in Iraq—co-opted into the Iraqi Army as 'Popular Mobilization Units'—some of which have fought alongside Assad's forces in Syria.

Sadr called on the Syrian president in Damascus to "take an historic, heroic decision" to step down, a move he said would spare the country further bloodshed. "I think it would be fair for President Bashar al-Assad to offer his resignation and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism… and take a historic, heroic decision before it is too late," he said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

Read More: Twin bombs kills at least 40 Iraqi pilgrims in Damascus

However, Sadr did not openly condemn Assad for his use of the nerve agent sarin, dropped April 4 on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian government has denied any involvement in the attack, as it has consistently denied the use of chemical weapons throughout the six-year-long civil war, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Rather, the cleric warned Assad that further U.S. strikes would "drag the region to war" and could lead to the "the expansion of Daesh," the Arabic name for the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

Sadr has been a fierce opponent of the United States since America's 2003 invasion of Iraq. The firebrand preacher rose to prominence, denouncing the occupation and created the Mahdi Army, an Iraqi militia, which launched attacks on the U.S. military.

The most recent and principal version of the Shiite Mahdi Army, the Saraya al-Salam, was remobilized to fight ISIS in 2014 as the militant Sunni group threatened the security of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. A number of the so-called Popular Mobilization Units, co-opted into the Iraqi Army in 2016, have links to the Mahdi Army.

In 2014, the Guardian reported that the Iran-backed militia, the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq formerly part of Sadr's Mahdi Army, was fighting alongside Assad in Syria.

The Iraqi government, backed by Iran and allied with the U.S., has itself had to tread a careful line over the chemical weapons attack. The government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemned the chemical attack—without naming Assad—and called for an international investigation into the deaths.

The statement from Baghdad also criticized "the hasty interventions" that followed the chemical attack, a reference to U.S. air strikes launched late Thursday.