NAJAF/TIKRIT - Powerful 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.

The decision, if confirmed as permanent, brings to a close a political career that began with his fierce opposition to the US military presence in Iraq, and has spanned more than a decade.

“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.

Meanwhile, at least 17 people were killed in attacks across Iraq on Sunday as troops fought to evict Islamist militants from the northern town of Sulaiman Pek, security sources and medics said.

Armoured vehicles and special police forces with heavy machineguns arrived in Sulaiman Pek to reinforce troops battling there for several days backed by helicopters gunships.

“Clashes are continuing today in the town centre,” the town’s mayor, Talib Mohammed, told Reuters. “The situation is still unclear. We can’t even look out of the window, as bullets and blasts are not stopping.”

Militants raised the black flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - a hardline Sunni group also fighting in neighbouring Syria - over parts of Sulaiman Pek, 160 km (100 miles) north of Baghdad, on Thursday.

Sunni militancy has been on the rise over the past year, especially in the western province of Anbar, where the army is besieging the city of Falluja, overrun by insurgents on Jan. 1.

A suicide car bomber blew himself up near a police checkpoint on Sunday, killing one person in the al-Warrar area west of Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi. Police said they had thwarted another attack east of Ramadi, shooting dead a suicide bomber driving a police vehicle previously seized by militants.

No group claimed responsibility for any of the latest attacks, but Sunni insurgents trying to undermine the Shi’ite-led government often attack police and military targets.

Gunmen killed five people at a police checkpoint in Taza, a town 210 km north of Baghdad, a local police source said.

In the town of Shirqat, 300 km north of the capital, at least two policemen were killed when gunmen fired on their patrol, police sources said.

A car bomb killed four people in the mainly Shi’ite Chkouk district in northern Baghdad, police and medical sources said.

In other attacks, police said two mortar rounds hit a house, killing a civilian, in Jurf al-Sakhar, 60 km south of Baghdad, where the army is also fighting militants.

Gunmen using silenced weapons shot a man and his son dead near their home in central Hilla, south of Baghdad. In the town of Muqdadiya, 80 km northeast of Baghdad, gunmen killed two government-backed Sunni militiamen in drive-by shooting.

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.