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Iraqi cleric orders supporters to retreat after clashes kill dozens

Moqtada al-Sadr's supporters fire weapons during clashes with Iraqi security forces near the Green Zone in Baghdad on Aug. 30. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)
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BAGHDAD — Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shiite cleric, called on his supporters Tuesday to immediately withdraw from a government district in Baghdad after a day of fierce fighting there killed dozens of people, deepening the political crisis in the country.

The bloodshed erupted Monday after Sadr announced his retirement from politics in a message posted on Twitter. His supporters reacted by storming the presidential palace in the district known as the Green Zone, which houses government ministries as well as foreign missions, including the U.S. Embassy.

In the hours that followed, Iraq’s political divides deepened in a flurry of rocket attacks and gun battles in the once-cloistered Green Zone and in other cities across the country. Health officials said that at least 34 people were killed.

“I apologize to the Iraqi people,” Sadr said in a televised speech early Tuesday afternoon. “I was hoping for a peaceful demonstration, not with mortars and weapons. I don’t want such revolution.”

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Minutes after his speech ended, his supporters, some carrying rocket-propelled grenades or other weapons, began walking away from the Green Zone. Iraqi authorities announced the lifting of a curfew in the city that was imposed Monday, and the caretaker prime minister thanked Sadr for his “patriotism” in calling his followers off.

The violence, the deadliest in Iraq in several years, did little to resolve a political standoff that has left the country without a government since last year and its citizens both bereft of basic services and captive to infighting between Sadr’s followers and rival Shiite groups that are sponsored by Iran.

In the grand scheme of things, the violence amounted to a “scuffle” between powerful Shiite militias jockeying for position, said Sajad Jiyad, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York who is currently in Baghdad. But “for the average Iraqi, it shows you how far these groups are willing to go. They are willing to fight each other for power and position.

“This is a dangerous game,” he said. “This could spiral out of control.”

Heavy clashes erupted in Baghdad on Aug. 29 after Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said he would quit politics, prompting violence from his followers. (Video: Reuters)

The political standoff began in October, when Sadr’s bloc won the largest number of seats in parliament but was unable to form a government after trying to exclude his Shiite rivals. After months of political paralysis, Sadr announced that his parliamentary candidates would resign from the legislature, and subsequently sent his followers to occupy the parliament.

A rival Shiite political grouping, dominated by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, accused Sadr of trying to stage a “coup” and has held its own demonstrations, during a summer of unrest.

Sadr, a populist with hundreds of thousands of followers who has opposed both U.S. and Iranian influence in Iraq, has called for early elections, as well as for political figures who served after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to be barred from government.

“There’s a power struggle at the heart of this,” Jiyad said. Sadr “believes his [bloc] is the sole legal representative of Iraq’s Shiites, that he should be calling the shots, that he shouldn’t have to share power with anybody else, at least from the Shiite community.” On the other side is a powerful Shiite bloc, called the Coordinating Framework, that believes “Sadr is very problematic, and he’s not a representative of Iraq’s Shiites and should not get to call the shots.”

Sadr’s retirement announcement — one of at least a half-dozen similar announcements he has made over the years — came after he had been “pushed into a corner,” Jiyad said, by the political stalemate but also a statement critical of him released Monday by a cleric considered to be a supporter of Sadr’s family.

Sadr’s announcement amounted to a green light to his supporters, as well as a message to Iraq’s other political factions, Jiyad said: “This is the level of violence he’s trying to prevent, and this is how powerful his group is. That he is keeping a lid on some of this anger.” He noted that Sadr waited a full day before calling on his followers to retreat.

As his supporters withdrew from the Green Zone on Tuesday, with a vast assortment of weapons, they left behind crumbled blast walls and a sea of spent bullet shells, which were promptly collected by children to sell for scrap.

“Personally, I didn’t want to retreat,” said Mouamle Hassan, 21, who left the area carrying a rifle. “We lost martyrs, but we will always obey Sadr.” The cleric’s demands — for the dissolution of parliament and early elections — now carry more weight, he reckoned. “Now those corrupt militias saw what we are capable of,” he said, referring to Sadr’s rivals.

Fahim reported from Istanbul.