Medical officials said protesters were injured by tear gas and physical altercations with riot police during the clashes outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, as a national curfew was imposed at 7pm local time by security officials.
Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said he was quitting politics over a stalemate when forming a new government, sparking clashes between his followers and those backing Iran-aligned militia groups.
Dozens of young men loyal to Sadr and supporters of the Tehran-backed groups hurled stones at each other outside government compounds and embassies. Some jumped into a swimming pool at the palace, cheering and waving flags.
Gunfire was heard in central Baghdad, reporters said, apparently from weapons being fired into the air.
The clashes took place hours after Sadr announced he was withdrawing from politics, which prompted his supporters, who had been staging a weeks-long sit-in at parliament in the Green Zone, to demonstrate and storm the main cabinet headquarters.
Sadr, who has drawn broad support by opposing both US and Iranian influence on Iraqi politics, was the biggest winner from an October election.
He withdrew all his lawmakers from parliament in June after he failed to form a government that excluded his rivals, mostly Tehran-backed Shi’ite parties.
Sadr has insisted on early elections and the dissolution of parliament. He says no politician who has been in power since the US invasion in 2003 can hold office.
“I hereby announce my final withdrawal,” Sadr said in a statement posted on Twitter, criticising fellow Shi’ite political leaders for failing to heed his calls for reform.
He did not elaborate on the closure of his offices, but said that cultural and religious institutions would remain open.
Sadr’s decision ramped up dangerous tensions among heavily armed Shi’ite groups. Many Iraqis worry that moves by each Shi’ite camp could lead to new civil conflict.
“The (Iran) loyalists came and burned the tents of Sadrists, and attacked protesters,” said Kadhim Haitham, a supporter of Sadr.
Pro-Iran groups blamed the Sadrists for the clashes and denied having shot at anyone. “It’s not true – if our people had guns why would they need to throw rocks?” said one militia member, who declined to be identified by name.
Sadr has withdrawn from politics and the government in the past and has also disbanded militias loyal to him. But he retains widespread influence over state institutions and controls a paramilitary group with thousands of members.
He has often returned to political activity after similar announcements, although the current deadlock in Iraq appears harder to resolve than previous periods of dysfunction.
The current impasse between Sadr and Shi’ite rivals has given Iraq its longest run without a government.
Supporters of the mercurial cleric first stormed the Green Zone in July. Since then, they have occupied parliament, halting the process to choose a new president and prime minister.
Sadr’s ally Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who remains caretaker prime minister, suspended cabinet meetings until further notice after Sadrist protesters stormed the government headquarters on Monday.
Iraq has struggled to recover since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017 because political parties have squabbled over power and the vast oil wealth possessed by Iraq, OPEC’s second-largest producer.