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Iraqi cleric tells loyalists to leave streets after deadly clashes

Muqtada al-Sadr gave supporters, hundreds of whom stormed the government palace and have been holding a sit-in outside the Parliament building, an hour to leave.

BAGHDAD — Powerful Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his loyalists in the government zone to withdraw after nearly 24 hours of fierce clashes with security forces and paramilitary groups.

In a televised speech Tuesday, al-Sadr gave his supporters, hundreds of whom stormed the government palace and have been holding an ongoing sit-in outside the Parliament building, an hour to leave.

Earlier, his supporters fired rocket-propelled grenades into Iraq’s Green Zone as machine gun fire crackled overhead, deepening the political chaos gripping the Mideast nation.

Those backing influential al-Sadr fired into the Green Zone, where it appeared Iraqi security forces were firing back at them. Live television footage showed the chaos, with at least one wounded man being taken away in a three-wheel rickshaw, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry visible behind them.

The death toll rose to 22 Iraqis on Tuesday after the unrest erupted the previous day, according to two medical officials.

Dozens of angry supporters of the powerful cleric stormed the Republican Palace, a ceremonial building in the fortified Green Zone of Baghdad. Hussein Faleh / AFP - Getty Images

Iraq’s military said four rockets were launched into the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Al-Sadr’s sudden resignation Monday catapulted Iraq into violence and chaos with no clear path out. The cleric derives power from his ability to mobilize and control his large grassroots following, but with his stated exit from politics, he has implicitly given them the freedom to act as they see fit.

To avenge the killing of unarmed loyalists, al-Sadr’s militia Saraya Salam had clashed with Iraqi security forces in the Green Zone using an array of weapons, including mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, two security officials said. The militia also took over some headquarters belonging to rival Iran-backed militia groups in the southern provinces overnight.

Iranian state television cited “unrests” and “curfew” in Iraqi cities for the reason for the border closures. It urged Iranians avoid any travel to Iraq while urging Iran’s Shia pilgrims in Iraq to avoid further travel between cities.

Iraq’s government has been deadlocked since al-Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in October parliamentary elections but not enough to secure a majority government. His refusal to negotiate with his Iran-backed Shia rivals and subsequent exit from the talks has catapulted the country into political uncertainty and volatility amid intensifying intra-Shia wrangling.

To further his political interests, al-Sadr has wrapped his rhetoric with a nationalist and reform agenda that resonates powerfully among his broad grassroots base of supporters. They are calling for the dissolution of Parliament and early elections without the participation of Iran-backed Shia groups, which they see as responsible for the status quo.

Kuwait has urged its citizens in neighboring Iraq to leave the country. The state-run KUNA news agency also encouraged those hoping to travel to Iraq to delay their plans over the eruption of violent street clashes between rival Shia groups in the country.

The tiny Gulf Arab sheikhdom of Kuwait shares a 158-mile-long border with Iraq.

The Netherlands has evacuated its embassy in the Green Zone, Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra tweeted early Tuesday.

Iraqi security forces fired tear gas on the followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr inside the government palace Monday.Hadi Mizban / AP

“There are firefights around the embassy in Baghdad. Our staff are now working at the German embassy elsewhere in the city,” Hoekstra wrote.

Dubai’s long-haul carrier Emirates stopped flights to Baghdad on Tuesday over the ongoing unrest in Iraq. The carrier said that it was “monitoring the situation closely.”

It did not say whether flights would resume for Wednesday.