BAGHDAD (AP) — An influential Iraqi cleric on Tuesday called on his supporters to withdraw from the capital’s government district, where they have exchanged heavy fire with security forces in a serious escalation of a months-long political crisis that has seized the nation.
In a televised address, Muqtada al-Sadr gave his supporters an hour to leave – and minutes later some could be seen abandoning their positions on live television. The Iraqi army announced the end of the curfew, raising hopes that the violence in the streets would end.
The unrest began on Monday, when al-Sadr announced he would resign from politics and his supporters stormed the Green Zone, once the US military stronghold that now houses Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies. At least 30 people were killed, officials said.
“This is not a revolution,” al-Sadr said in a televised address, which followed calls for restraint and peace from several Iraqi and United Nations officials.
The Iraqi government has been deadlocked since al-Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in October’s parliamentary elections, but not enough to secure a majority government, sparking months of infighting between different Shia factions. Al-Sadr has refused to negotiate with his Iran-backed Shiite rivals, and his withdrawal on Monday catapulted Iraq into political uncertainty.
Iran closed its borders with Iraq on Tuesday – a sign of Tehran’s fear that chaos could spread, although even before al-Sadr’s order, the streets beyond the government district of the capital remained largely calm. The country’s vital oil continued to flow, with global benchmark Brent crude trading slightly lower.
Earlier on Tuesday, al-Sadr supporters could be seen on live television firing both machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into the heavily fortified area through a section of torn down concrete walls. Security forces armed with machine guns inside the area fired back sporadically.
Some bystanders filmed the shooting with their mobile phones, although most hid behind sections of wall that were still standing, grimacing as bullets crackled nearby. As al-Sadr’s forces fired, a line of armored tanks stood on the other side of the barriers that surround the green zone, although they did not use their heavy weapons.
At least one injured man from al-Sadr’s forces was taken away in a three-wheeled rickshaw, with the Iraqi Foreign Ministry visible in the background. Thick black smoke at one point rose above the area, visible for miles (kilometers) away.
At least 30 people were killed and more than 400 injured, two Iraqi medical officials said. The toll included both al-Sadr loyalists killed in protests the day before and clashes overnight. Those numbers are expected to rise, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to reporters.
Members of Iraq’s predominantly Shia Muslim population were oppressed when Saddam Hussein ruled the country for decades. The 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, a Sunni, overthrew the political order. Just under two-thirds of Iraq are Shia, with one-third Sunni.
Now the Shiites are fighting amongst themselves after the Americans have largely withdrawn from the nation, with Iran-backed Shiites and Iraqi nationalist Shiites vying for state power, influence and resources.
It’s an explosive rivalry in a country where many remain under the influence of the Iranian government even as trade and ties remain strong between its peoples. Iraq and Iran fought a bloody war in the 1980s that left a million dead.
Al-Sadr’s nationalist rhetoric and his reform agenda resonate powerfully with his supporters, who are largely drawn from the poorer sectors of Iraqi society and have historically been excluded from the political system under Saddam.
Al-Sadr’s announcement of his departure from politics implicitly gave his supporters the freedom to act as they see fit.
Iranian state television cited unrest and an army-imposed curfew in Iraqi cities as the reason for the border closures. He urged Iranians to avoid all travel to the neighboring country. The decision came as millions of people prepared to travel to Iraq for an annual pilgrimage to Shia sites, and Tehran encouraged all Iranian pilgrims already in Iraq to avoid further travel between cities.
Kuwait, meanwhile, called on its citizens to leave Iraq. The official KUNA news agency also encouraged those hoping to travel to Iraq to delay their plans.
The Little Arab Sheikh of the Gulf of Kuwait shares a 254 kilometer (158 mile) long border with Iraq.
The Netherlands has evacuated its embassy to the green zone, Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra tweeted early Tuesday.
“There are exchanges of fire around the embassy in Baghdad. Our staff are now working at the German embassy elsewhere in the city,” Hoekstra wrote.
Dubai’s long-haul carrier Emirates halted flights to Baghdad on Tuesday due to the ongoing unrest. The carrier said it was “monitoring the situation closely”. He did not say when flights would resume.
On Monday, protesters loyal to al-Sadr tore down the cement barriers outside the government palace with ropes and broke through the palace gates. Many rushed to the palatial salons and marble halls of the palace, a key meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.
Samya Kullab and Qassim Abdul-zahra, The Associated Press