Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has become the first major Shia leader to call on Syrian President Bashar al Assad to step down.
Sadr, who is a political as well as a religious leader, has a huge following among Baghdad’s majority Shia community, and is known for his staunch positions against the US presence in Iraq.
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.
The cleric warned Assad that further U.S. strikes would “drag the region to war” and could lead to the “the expansion of Daesh.”
Sadr has been a fierce opponent of the United States since America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The preacher rose to prominence denouncing the occupation and created the Mahdi Army, an Iraqi militia, which launched attacks on the U.S. military.
After the uprising against Assad broke out in March 2011, Sadr expressed his support in a statement. Despite accusations that the Sadrist Movement was taking part in the Syrian conflict, he has denied any involvement by members of his party.
He has also voiced his disapproval of other Shia militias going to Syria to fight for Assad. Sadr has also expelled a number of fighters from his armed factions for having fought in Syria.
Sadr’s statement contrasts sharply with the positions of other major Shia political and religious leaders, such as Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who say that Damascus must be supported in a fight against terrorism.