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At least 10 killed in clashes in Baghdad’s Green Zone after powerful cleric announces withdrawal from politics

<i>Hadi Mizban/Associated Press</i><br/>Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr try to remove concrete barriers in the Green Zone area of Baghdad on August 29.
Hadi Mizban/Associated Press
Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr try to remove concrete barriers in the Green Zone area of Baghdad on August 29.

By Mohammed Tawfeeq, Aqeel Najim and Ivana Kottasov√°, CNN

At least 10 people were killed and more than 200 injured in violent clashes that erupted in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Monday, following an announcement by powerful Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that he was withdrawing from political life, medical sources told CNN.

Several witnesses told CNN the security forces pushed protesters out of Iraq’s Republican Palace by firing tear gas and live bullets. Hundreds of protesters stormed the building inside the Green Zone following al-Sadr’s announcement, Iraqi security officials told CNN on Monday.

Iraq security forces said Tuesday four rockets had landed in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, damaging a residential complex. The rockets were launched from the al-Habibiya and al-Baladiyat areas east of the capital, said the Iraqi Security Media Cell.

The Republican Palace is where the Iraqi cabinet meets, and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has now suspended all meetings of his government until further notice, according to a statement released by his office. The Prime Minister has urged al-Sadr “to help call on the demonstrators to withdraw from government institutions.”

The country’s President Barham Salih also urged calm, saying in a statement on Monday that “the difficult circumstance that our country is going through requires everyone to abide by calm, restraint, prevent escalation, and ensure that the situation does not slip into unknown and dangerous labyrinths in which everyone will lose.”

Al-Sadr said he had made a decision two months ago “not to interfere in political affairs,” but he was now announcing his “final retirement” from politics and shutting down all his political offices across the country, according to a statement released by his office on Monday.

The announcement came after weeks of tensions and protests that were sparked by al-Sadr’s decision in June to order his entire political bloc to withdraw from the Iraqi parliament in an apparent show of force after months of political stalemate.

At that time, he said his request was “a sacrifice from me for the country and the people to rid them of the unknown destiny.”

Iraq has struggled to form a new government since parliamentary elections in October which saw Iran-backed Shiite blocs losing seats to the Sadrists.

Al-Sadr, who has in the past positioned himself against both Iran and the United States, is popular in Iraq. However, his attempts to form a government have foundered in the months following the election amid opposition from rival blocs.

Finally, in July, the Coordination Framework, the largest Shiite alliance in the Iraqi parliament, nominated Mohammed Shiya al-Sudani to lead the country — sparking a wave of protests by those loyal to al-Sadr.

Iraqi security forces on Monday called on thousands of protesters to withdraw immediately from inside the Green Zone. In a statement, the Iraqi military said they were practicing “the highest levels of self-restraint and brotherly behavior to prevent clashes or the spilling of Iraqi blood.”

“The security forces affirm their responsibility to protect government institutions, international missions, and public and private properties,” the statement said, adding: “Dealing with peaceful demonstrations is done through the constitution and laws, and the security forces will do their duty to protect security and stability.”

The military declared a full curfew, including on vehicles and pedestrians, starting from 3:30 p.m. local time in the capital city and 7 p.m. local time in the rest of the country. The curfew will be in place until further notice, according to a military statement.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) has also urged protesters leave governmental buildings and to “allow the government to continue its responsibilities of running the state” for the Iraqi people.

“State institutions must operate unimpeded in service of the Iraqi people, under all circumstances and at all times. Respect for constitutional order will now prove vital,” UNAMI said in a statement released on Monday.

The US embassy in Baghdad also urged calm, tweeting that “now is the time for dialogue to resolve differences, not through confrontation.”
“The right to peaceful public protest is a fundamental element of all democracies, but demonstrators must also respect the institutions and property of the Iraqi government, which belong to and serve the Iraqi people and should be allowed to function,” the embassy added.

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