Heavy gunfire rocks Iraq’s Green Zone amid violent protests

BAGHDAD (AP) — Supporters of an influential Iraqi Shia cleric fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns into Iraq’s Green Zone as security forces returned fire on Tuesday, seriously worsening a months-long political crisis that has gripped the nation.

The death toll rose to at least 30 people after two days of unrest, officials said.

Those backing the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who resigned suddenly on Monday amid a political stalemate, stormed the Green Zone, once a US military stronghold that now houses Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies. At least one country has evacuated its diplomatic personnel amid the chaos.

The Iraqi government has been deadlocked since al-Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in October’s parliamentary elections, but not enough to secure a majority government, sparking months of infighting between different Shia factions. Al-Sadr has refused to negotiate with his Iran-backed Shia rivals, and his withdrawal on Monday catapulted Iraq into political uncertainty and volatility with no clear way out.

The violence threatened to deepen the political crisis, although the streets elsewhere in the country remained largely calm and the country’s vital oil continued to flow. Iran has closed its borders with Iraq, a sign of Tehran’s fear that chaos could spread.

Live television footage showed al-Sadr supporters firing both heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into the heavily fortified Green Zone through a section of torn down concrete walls. Bystanders, apparently unaware of the danger, filmed the shooting with their mobile phones.

As al-Sadr’s forces fired, a line of armored tanks stood on the other side of the fences surrounding the Green Zone. Thick black smoke at one point rose above the area, visible for miles (kilometers) away.

At least one injured man was taken away in a three-wheeled rickshaw, with the Iraqi Foreign Ministry visible in the background.

At least 30 people were killed and more than 400 injured, two Iraqi medical officials said. The toll included both al-Sadr loyalists killed in protests the day before and clashes overnight. Those numbers are expected to rise, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to reporters.

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Members of Iraq’s Shia Muslim sect were oppressed when Saddam Hussein ruled the country, but the US-led invasion toppled the political order. Now the Shiites are fighting amongst themselves, with the Iranian-backed Shiites and the Iraqi nationalist Shiites vying for state power, influence and resources.

Al-Sadr’a’s nationalist rhetoric and reform agenda resonate powerfully with his supporters, who are largely drawn from the poorer sectors of Iraqi society and have historically been excluded from the political system under Saddam.

His announcement that he is leaving politics implicitly gave his supporters the freedom to do as they see fit.

Iranian state television cited unrest and an army-imposed curfew in Iraqi cities as the reason for the border closures. He urged Iranians to avoid all travel to the neighboring country. The decision came as millions of people prepared to travel to Iraq for an annual pilgrimage to Shia sites, and Tehran encouraged all Iranian pilgrims already in Iraq to avoid further travel between cities.

Kuwait, meanwhile, called on its citizens to leave Iraq. The official KUNA news agency also encouraged those hoping to travel to Iraq to delay their plans.

The Little Arab Sheikh of the Gulf of Kuwait shares a 254 kilometer (158 mile) long border with Iraq.

The Netherlands has evacuated its embassy to the green zone, Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra tweeted early Tuesday.

“There are exchanges of fire 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 halted flights to Baghdad on Tuesday due to the ongoing unrest. The carrier said it was “monitoring the situation closely”. He did not say when flights would resume.

On Monday, protesters loyal to al-Sadr tore down the cement barriers outside the government palace with ropes and broke through the palace gates. Many rushed to the palatial salons and marble halls of the palace, a key meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.

The Iraqi military announced a nationwide curfew and the acting prime minister suspended Cabinet sessions in response to the violence.

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