Tensions in Iraq have been running high amid a political crisis that has left the country without a new government, prime minister or president for months.
They escalated sharply after Sadr’s supporters stormed the government palace within the highly secured Green Zone on Monday afternoon after their leader announced he was retiring from politics.
The violence pits Sadr supporters against rival Shia factions backed by neighboring Iran, with the parties exchanging gunfire over barricades — violence that the United Nations warns will plunge the war-ravaged country deeper into chaos.
At night, shelling was aimed at the Green Zone where government offices and diplomatic missions are housed, a security source said, amid angry protests after Sadr’s surprise announcement.
Sadr, a gray-bearded preacher and millions of devoted followers who once led a militia against US and Iraqi government forces after the US-led overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, announced his “final retirement” on Monday and said he had “decided had to not meddle in political affairs”.
On Tuesday morning, new clashes broke out between Sadr’s supporters and the army and men of the Hashed al-Shaabi, former Tehran-backed paramilitaries integrated into the Iraqi armed forces.
From the Green Zone could be heard the chatter of automatic rifle fire and heavier explosions of rocket-propelled grenades.
The United Nations mission in Iraq warned of “an extremely dangerous escalation” and called on all parties “to refrain from any action that could lead to an unstoppable series of events”.
“The very survival of the state is at stake,” he warned.
But amid an army-imposed nationwide curfew that continued Tuesday, Baghdad was otherwise quiet, with shops closed and few cars taking to the streets.
On Tuesday morning, medics updated the death toll of Sadr supporters to 23, injuring some 380 others – some with gunshot wounds and others who inhaled tear gas.
A mass funeral was held on Tuesday in the Shia holy city of Najaf for some of the protesters killed in Baghdad.
Witnesses previously said Sadr loyalists and supporters of a rival Shia bloc, the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, had exchanged fire.
The Framework condemned an “attack on state institutions” and urged the sadrists to engage in dialogue.
Acting Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi said “security or armed forces or gunmen” were prohibited from firing at protesters.
The United States also urged calm amid the “disturbing” reports, while France “called on the parties to exercise extreme restraint”.
Shortly after Sadr announced his resignation, his followers stormed into the Republican Palace in Baghdad – where cabinet meetings are usually held – and initially celebrated by cooling off in a pool in the garden, among other things.
Sadr – a longtime player on the war-torn country’s political scene, though he himself has never sat directly in government – announced two days after he said “all parties,” including his, would have to give up government positions that he would leave politics. to help resolve the political crisis.
His bloc emerged from last year’s election as the largest in the legislature, with 73 seats but no majority.
In June, his lawmakers shut down in an attempt to break the blockade, leading to the Coordination Framework becoming the largest bloc.
Hamzeh Hadad, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it was “not clear” what Sadr’s strategy was.
“Whatever it means, in a typically sadistic way, a relapse is always expected,” Hadad said.
“The second, and more terrifying thought about this is that he’s giving his followers the green light to do whatever they want.”
Iraq has been in political stalemate since last October’s parliamentary elections due to disagreements among Shia factions over forming a coalition.
Sadr’s supporters have been holding a sit-in outside the Iraqi parliament for weeks after storming the interior of the legislature on July 30, demanding new elections.
The Coordination Framework wants a new head of government to be appointed before new polls are held.