Two people have been killed in Baghdad after a decision by Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to quit politics over a political deadlock prompted clashes between his supporters and backers of Iran-backed rivals.
Young men loyal to Sadr who took to the streets in protest at the cleric’s move skirmished with supporters of Iran-aligned groups.
They hurled rocks at each other outside Baghdad’s Green Zone, which is home to ministries and embassies.
Gunfire echoed across central Baghdad, reporters said.
At least some of the shots appeared to come from guns being fired into the air, although the source of all the gunfire was not immediately clear in a country awash with arms.
In addition to two people killed, 19 people were injured, police and medical workers said.
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.
Iraq’s army declared a curfew from 3.30pm and urged the protesters to leave the Green Zone.
During the stalemate over forming a new government, Sadr has galvanised his legions of backers, throwing into disarray Iraq’s effort to recover from decades of conflict and sanctions and its bid to tackle sectarian strife and rampant corruption.
Sadr, who has drawn broad support by opposing both US and Iranian influence on Iraqi politics, was the biggest winner from an October election but withdrew all his MPs from parliament in June after he failed to form a government that excluded his rivals, mostly Iran-allied 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Sadr has withdrawn from politics and the government in the past and has also disbanded militias loyal to him.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 then stormed Baghdad’s central government zone.
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 the Islamic State group in 2017 because political parties have squabbled over power and the vast oil wealth possessed by Iraq, OPEC’s second-largest producer.