Iraq sets nationwide curfew after protesters storm the government building

Iraq sets nationwide curfew after protesters storm the government building

Iraq sets nationwide curfew after protesters storm the government building

Protesters gather outside Baghdad's Green Zone (AFP via Getty Images)

Protesters gather outside Baghdad’s Green Zone (AFP via Getty Images)

At least 10 people died and many more were injured in violent protests that erupted outside the Iraqi government headquarters in Baghdad.

Medical officials said protesters were injured by tear gas and physical altercations with riot police during clashes outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, as a national curfew was imposed at 7pm local time by security officials.

Powerful Iraqi Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said he was abandoning politics due to a stalemate when he formed a new government, sparking clashes between his followers and those who support Iranian-aligned militia groups.

Dozens of young people loyal to Sadr and supporters of Tehran-backed groups threw stones at each other outside government complexes and embassies. Some jumped into a palace pool, cheering and waving flags.

Supporters of Iraqi populist leader Moqtada al-Sadr protest in the Green Zone (REUTERS)

Supporters of Iraqi populist leader Moqtada al-Sadr protest in the Green Zone (REUTERS)

Shots were heard in central Baghdad, reporters said, apparently from guns fired into the air.

The clashes occurred hours after Sadr announced his retirement from politics, which prompted his supporters, who had organized a week-long sit-in at parliament in the Green Zone, to demonstrate and storm the cabinet headquarters.

Sadr, who gained widespread support by opposing both US and Iranian influence on Iraqi politics, was the biggest winner of the October elections.

In June, he withdrew all of his lawmakers from parliament after failing to form a government that excluded his rivals, mostly Tehran-backed Shiite parties.

Sadr 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, criticizing fellow Shiite political leaders for not listening to his demands 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 has intensified dangerous tensions between heavily armed Shia groups. Many Iraqis fear that the moves of each Shiite camp could lead to a new civil conflict.

“The (Iranian) loyalists came and burned the Sadrist tents and attacked the protesters,” said Kadhim Haitham, a supporter of Sadr.

Pro-Iranian groups accused the Sadrists of the clashes and denied having shot anyone. “That’s not true: if our people had guns, why would they throw stones?” said one militia member, who refused to be identified by name.

Sadr has withdrawn from politics and government in the past and has also dissolved militias loyal to him. But he maintains 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 stalemate in Iraq seems more difficult to resolve than in previous periods of dysfunction.

The current impasse between Sadr and Shia rivals has given Iraq its longest period without a government.

Advocates of religious mercurialism first stormed the Green Zone in July. They have since occupied parliament, interrupting the process of choosing a new president and prime minister.

Ally of Sadr Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who remains interim prime minister, suspended cabinet meetings until further notice after Sadrist protesters stormed government headquarters on Monday.

Iraq struggled to recover from the defeat of the Islamic State in 2017 as political parties fought over power and the vast oil wealth owned by Iraq, the second largest producer of OPEC.

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