Sadr calls on his supporters to end Baghdad protests after violent clashes

  • Iran closes border ahead of Shiite pilgrimage next month
  • 22 people killed in clashes in Baghdad; worst in years
  • Violence erupted after Sadr announced his retirement from politics

BAGHDAD, Aug 30 (Reuters) – Powerful Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Tuesday ordered his supporters to end their protests in central Baghdad and apologized to Iraqis after 22 people were killed in clashes between rival Shia Muslim groups.

“It’s not a revolution because it has lost its peaceful character,” Sadr said. “The spilling of Iraqi blood is prohibited.”

In a televised address at 1:00 p.m. (1000 GMT), Sadr set a one-hour deadline for his supporters to leave their protests in the walled Green Zone in central Baghdad, where they have occupied parliament for weeks.

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“In 60 minutes, if the Sadrist Movement does not withdraw, including from the sit-in in parliament, then even I will leave the movement,” Sadr said.

His speech came a day after the worst violence in the Iraqi capital in years – which follows a 10-month political stalemate since parliamentary elections in October – prompted neighboring Iran to close its border and halt flights to Iraq.

The protracted political stalemate, during which the two sides have fought over power, has given the country its longest period without a government and has led to further unrest as Iraq struggles to recover from decades of conflict.

This time the fighting, in which Sadr’s supporters clashed with armed groups loyal to Iran, is part of the Shiite majority that has ruled Iraq since the 2003 US invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein .

“There are out-of-control militias, yes, but that doesn’t mean the Sadrist movement should also be out of control,” Sadr, a former anti-US insurgent leader, said in his speech.

Earlier on Tuesday, militants fired rockets at the Green Zone and gunmen drove around in pickup trucks carrying machine guns and brandishing grenade launchers, as residents observed a curfew. During the night, sustained gun and rocket fire rang out across the city.

An Iraqi government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities were unable to impose a check. “The government is powerless to stop this because the army is equally divided between (Iranian) loyalists and Sadrists,” the official said.

Monday’s violence was sparked by Sadr’s announcement that he would withdraw from political activity – a move he said was a response to the failure of other Shia leaders and parties to reform a system of government corrupt and decaying.

The Iraqi military declared an indefinite nationwide curfew and urged protesters to leave the Green Zone, while the United States called the unrest disturbing and called for dialogue to ease Iraq’s political problems.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Washington saw no immediate need to evacuate its embassy staff to Baghdad’s Green Zone. Read more

IRAN CLOSES BORDER AND STOPS FLIGHTS

Sadr has positioned himself as a nationalist who opposes all foreign interference, whether from the United States and the West or from Iran.

He insisted on a snap election and the dissolution of parliament, saying no politician in power since the US invasion in 2003 should remain in office.

He commands a militia thousands strong and has millions of loyal followers across the country. Its opponents, longtime allies of Tehran, control dozens of heavily armed paramilitary groups trained by Iranian forces.

Sadr and his opponents have long dominated state institutions and ruled large parts of the Iraqi state.

Neighboring Iran has closed its border with Iraq and urged its citizens to avoid traveling there, a senior official said. Iranian state television said the flights had also been halted “until further notice due to unrest there”. Read more

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Reporting by John Davison, Moataz Mohamed and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Written by Nadine Awadalla and Dominic Evans; Editing by Alex Richardson and Tomasz Janowski

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Sadr calls on his supporters to end Baghdad protests after violent clashes

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