Najaf (Iraq) (AFP) - Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of a major political movement and a key figure in post-Saddam Iraq, has announced his exit from politics two months before elections.
"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 AFP on Sunday.
Ahead of legislative elections in April, Sadr's movement 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.
It was not immediately clear if the move was temporary or permanent, with Sadrist officials saying they had been taken by surprise and could not clarify.
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.
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.
"He could be trying to distance himself from an unpopular electoral process where everyone is able to vote but discontent with the candidates is high," said John Drake, a Britain-based analyst for risk consultancy AKE Group.
"He could also be seeking to adopt a figurehead role, with influence rather than electoral endorsement," Drake said.
Sadr's political career began with his fierce opposition to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country that toppled Saddam.
His rise was aided by the famed reputation of his father Mohammed Mohammed Sadiq, who was killed along with two of Moqtada's brothers in 1999 by gunmen allegedly sent by Saddam, and another relative, Mohammed Baqir, who was executed in 1980.
Moqtada's movement subsequently gained both seats in parliament and cabinet posts, and played the role of political kingmaker.
Sadr's widely-feared Mahdi Army militia also repeatedly battled 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 fierce battles with Iraqi and US security forces.
US military commanders said Sadr's action had been instrumental in helping bring about a significant decrease in Iraq violence.
Both before and after the US military withdrawal in late 2011, Sadr was a sharp critic of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, despite ultimately backing his selection as premier in both 2006 and 2010.
In 2012, Sadr was among Iraqi politicians who called for Maliki to resign, referred to the premier as a "dictator" hungry for acclaim, and accused him of wanting to postpone or cancel elections.
But Maliki ultimately weathered the crisis, and Sadr's focus has increasingly shifted to religious studies in both Iran and Iraq that have taken him out of the country for extended periods of time.