Iraqis respond to cleric’s call to stand down after deadly clashes

By Samya Kullab and Qassim Abdul-Zahra | Associated Press

BAGHDAD — Armed supporters of a powerful Iraqi cleric who clashed with security forces in the capital began retreating from the streets on Tuesday, restoring some calm after a serious escalation in the national political crisis.

After two days of deadly unrest that raised fears of instability spreading across the country and even the region, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 48, told his supporters to leave the government district where they are squatting. were gathered. Within minutes, some could be seen answering the call, tearing down their tents and walking out of the area known as the Green Zone.

Supporters of the cleric put away their belongings and trucks transported bundled up mattresses. Mounds of rubbish littered the thoroughfares and steps leading to the Iraqi parliament building. A waving portrait of al-Sadr was placed against a tree as his supporters rolled up carpets, tea glasses and the remains of their four-week sit-in.

The Iraqi military also announced the lifting of a nationwide curfew, raising hopes that the immediate crisis will ease, although the wider political crisis remains unresolved. Al-Sadr’s decision to defuse tensions has raised questions about how issues such as the dissolution of parliament and the holding of early elections will be handled between rival groups.

Protesters supporting al-Sadr’s rivals also withdrew from their demonstration outside the government area.

Iraq’s 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. This led to months of political tussles between al-Sadr’s Shia supporters and his Iran-backed Shia rivals before they turned violent on Monday.

The chaos began when al-Sadr announced that he would resign from politics. Many dismissed the move as a ploy to gain greater influence, and his supporters stormed the Green Zone, once the stronghold of the US military and now home to Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies. They finally broke through the gates of the government palace, rushing through its lavish salons and marble halls.

On Tuesday, his supporters could be seen on live television firing both machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into the heavily fortified Green Zone, as security forces sporadically returned fire and armored tanks lined up. Some bystanders filmed the shooting with their mobile phones, although most hid behind walls, grimacing as bullets crackled nearby.

At least 30 people were killed, officials said, before al-Sadr urged his followers to return home, following calls for restraint from several Iraqi and United Nations officials.

“It’s not a revolution,” the cleric said in a televised address.

Al-Sadr, who prompted his supporters to storm parliament in July with calls for revolution and reform, apologized to the Iraqi people and said he could not support violence.

The immediate change in the streets underscored his enduring control over his loyalists and, by extension, his influence over the Iraqi political class.

In addition to dozens of deaths, more than 400 were injured, two Iraqi medical officials said on Tuesday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to reporters.

In a sign of fears the unrest could spread, Iran closed its borders with Iraq earlier on Tuesday, although even before al-Sadr’s order, streets beyond the capital’s government district remained largely calm. The country’s vital oil continued to flow, with global benchmark Brent crude trading slightly lower.

Later Tuesday, Iran resumed flights to Iraq, Iranian state television reported.

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.

Today Shiites are fighting amongst themselves, with those backed by Iran and those who see themselves as Iraqi nationalists vying for state power, influence and resources.

It is an explosive rivalry in a country where many are wary of the influence of the Iranian government even if the exchanges and the links between the people remain strong. 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 initial announcement that he would be leaving politics implicitly gave his supporters the freedom to do as they see fit. His speech on Tuesday effectively put the brakes on them.

Before that, the unrest led neighboring countries to issue warnings to their citizens and an embassy closed.

Along with closing its borders, Iran has urged its citizens to avoid all travel to the neighboring country, citing the unrest. The decision came as millions of people prepared to travel to Iraq for an annual pilgrimage to Shia sites.

Kuwait, which shares a 254 kilometer (158 mile) long border with Iraq, has called on its citizens to leave the neighboring country. The official KUNA news agency also encouraged those hoping to travel to Iraq to delay their plans.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has issued a safety alert for U.S. citizens urging them to avoid the Green Zone and other areas where protests are taking place as well as a do not travel advisory.

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. The carrier said it was “monitoring the situation closely”. He did not say when flights would resume.

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