Iraq. Powerful cleric asks his followers to stand down after day of violence in Baghdad

His supporters then stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone of the capital and the Republican Palace, where the cabinet meets. Protesters were seen swimming in the palace pool and waving Iraqi flags, while others clashed with Iraqi security forces in what turned out to be one of the Baghdad’s deadliest violence in years.

On Tuesday, al-Sadr apologized to the Iraqi people and ordered his supporters to withdraw from the Green Zone, giving them an ultimatum.

“Whether [protesters] do not withdraw, including from parliament, in 60 minutes I will disavow the movement itself,” he said at a press conference in the holy city of Najaf.

What is behind the explosive political crisis in Iraq?

Senior Iraqi officials, including outgoing Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, had urged al-Sadr to call on his supporters to withdraw from the Green Zone. In his remarks, al-Sadr thanked government forces for “remaining neutral” during the crisis.

“I walk with my head bowed and apologize to the Iraqi people who are the only ones injured,” he said.

Security forces told CNN that protesters began withdrawing from the Green Zone immediately after al-Sadr’s speech. Videos from Baghdad showed large crowds of protesters leaving the area.

Minutes later, the Iraqi military said it would lift the nationwide curfew imposed on Monday. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) welcomed al-Sadr’s “recent moderate statement”.

On Monday, fighters loyal to al-Sadr gather in clashes with Iraqi security forces near Baghdad's Green Zone.

While there was relative calm in Baghdad on Tuesday after al-Sadr’s speech, the episode risks plunging the country deeper into crisis as it remains in a political vacuum. Iraq has been without a functioning government for 10 months now, with political parties stuck in an impasse over who should lead the next cabinet.

A court session to dissolve parliament on Tuesday was delayed by Iraq’s federal court due to the protests.

Al-Sadr is immensely popular in the country and has positioned himself for years against the United States and Iran, which wields considerable influence in Iraq.

In October, al-Sadr’s Shiite bloc emerged the big winner in elections that threatened to sideline rival Iran-aligned Shiite blocs that have long dominated politics in the oil-rich country.

But al-Sadr’s attempts to form a government have since failed in the face of opposition from rival blocs. In an apparent show of force, al-Sadr decided in June to order his entire political bloc to withdraw from parliament.

In July, the Coordination Framework, the largest Shia alliance in Iraq’s parliament, appointed Mohammed Shiya al-Sudani as head of the country, sparking a wave of protests from al-Sadr loyalists. The coordination framework is made up of various Shia groups, some of which are backed by Iran.

On Tuesday, al-Kadhimi welcomed al-Sadr’s call for his supporters to stand down, saying everyone had a “moral and national responsibility to protect Iraq’s capabilities, to stop the language of escalation political and security issues and to engage in a rapid and fruitful dialogue to resolve the crisis.”

Iran has closed its borders with Iraq following the violence and canceled some flights to Baghdad, according to Iranian state news agency IRNA. The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad has also asked Iranians in Iraq to avoid traveling to the capital, as well as the cities of Kadhimiya and Samarra, IRNA added.

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