Violent clashes broke out throughout Iraq on Monday evening between followers of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqatada al-Sadr and members of Iran-backed militias after Sadr announced his "final retirement" from politics and the closure of all organizations affiliated with him.
Iraq has been swept by political turmoil in the past year as Sadr and his rivals have both attempted to form a government without success. All governorates in Iraq were placed under a comprehensive curfew starting at 7 p.m. curfew until further notice.
Clashes were reported in Baghdad and Basra between supporters of Sadr and members of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). RPGs, gunfire and mortars were reportedly used in the clashes. Nearly constant gunfire was heard throughout the evening in Baghdad.
As many as 14 protesters and a number of security forces were killed in the clashes, according to initial reports. Dozens of injuries had been reported as of Monday evening, as well.
Video from the Green Zone in Baghdad from Monday afternoon showed protestors entering the presidential palace, with many swimming in the pool at the palace. Shortly afterwards, security forces entered the area and clashes broke out.
مثلما حصل في سريلانكاانصار التيار الصدري يسبحون في مسبح القصر الجمهوري pic.twitter.com/5zHPq636nF— شاهو القرةداغي (@shahokurdy) August 29, 2022
Gunfire was heard in the Green Zone later on Monday afternoon, with initial reports indicating that the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) were using live ammunition against Sadrist demonstrators. Videos reportedly from the scene showed protestors running as heavy gunfire could be heard in the background. Armed Sadrist militants were also seen at the scene as the clashes intensified.
Iraqi security forces call for demonstrators to withdraw from Green Zone
The Iraqi Joint Operations Command called on the demonstrators who had breached the presidential palace to withdraw from the area, stressing that they had "adhered to 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. Dealing with peaceful demonstrations is done through the constitution and laws, and the security forces will do their duty to protect security and stability," added the Joint Operations Command.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi ordered the suspension of the sessions of the Council of Ministers due to the unrest on Monday.
"The dangerous developments that took place in our dear Iraq today, from the demonstrators storming the Green Zone and entering government institutions, indicate the seriousness of the consequences of the continuation and accumulation of political differences," warned Kadhimi.
The prime minister called on Sadr to have the demonstrators withdraw from the Green Zone.
Later in the evening, Kadhimi called for an investigation into the clashes in the Green Zone, stressing that "the use of bullets and shooting at demonstrators by any security, military, or armed party is strictly prohibited."
Iran closed its borders with Iraq and cancelled flights between the countries on Monday, advising Iranian citizens to avoid travelling to the country due to the unrest.
Sadr advisor calls for followers to listen to Iran's Khamenei
Additionally on Monday, Kadhim al-Haeri, a high-level Iraqi Shi'ite cleric who resides in Qom, Iran and an advisor to Sadr, announced that he was resigning from his religious position due to illness and old-age.
In his announcement on Monday, al-Haeri told his followers that they must all obey Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and called for the people of Iraq to maintain unity and harmony. The cleric also warned Iraqis against Baathists, Israel and the US.
This isn't the first time Sadr has announced his retirement. In 2013 and 2014 he made similar announcements, but eventually returned to politics.
Hassan al-Azari, an advisor to Sadr, announced on Monday night that Sadr had started a hunger strike until the violence stops from all sides.
US embassy calls for peaceful dialogue
The US Embassy in Baghdad called the reports of unrest "disturbing" on Monday evening.
"The United States is concerned about escalating tensions and urges all parties to remain peaceful and refrain from acts that could lead to a cycle of violence. Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty should not be put at risk. 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," said the embassy.