Iraqi supporters of powerful Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr have withdrawn from Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone after deadly violence rocked the Iraqi capital overnight.
Tuesday’s decision came shortly after al-Sadr called on his supporters to retreat and demanded an end to fighting between rival Shia forces and the army that left 30 people dead and hundreds injured.
“I apologize to the Iraqi people, the only ones affected by the events,” al-Sadr told reporters from his base in the central Iraqi city of Najaf.
After his speech was broadcast live on television, his supporters began dismantling encampments and clearing the Green Zone, where city workers began cleaning up shells and casings left over from the unrest.
Shortly after, the military lifted a nationwide curfew imposed since violence erupted on Monday, raising hopes there could be a halt to the deadliest violence in years.
The latest violence has also prompted Iraqi President Barham Saleh to push for “new early elections in accordance with a national consensus”, saying they could provide “a way out of the stifling crisis”.
Later on Tuesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi said he would “leave his post” if the complicated political situation in the country continued.
The unrest began on Monday when al-Sadr announced he would resign from politics and his supporters stormed the Green Zone, once the US military stronghold that now houses Iraqi government offices and embassies foreign.
“This is not a revolution,” al-Sadr said in his televised address, which followed calls for restraint and peace from several Iraqi and United Nations officials.
His decision to quit politics came after weeks of protests from his supporters following a political crisis that left the country without a new government, prime minister or president for months.
International Crisis Group Iraqi analyst Lahib Higel said al-Sadr ‘clearly wants to show his rivals that he is in control of his crowd’ by ordering them to take to the streets and return when things get out of hand too.
“Sadr’s statement was pretty clear that he didn’t want any further escalation,” Higel told Al Jazeera.
Al-Sadr, a gray-bearded Muslim leader with millions of staunch followers who once led a militia against US and Iraqi government forces after the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, announced his “retirement final” and said he had “decided not to meddle in political affairs”.
On Monday night and Tuesday morning, clashes raged between al-Sadr supporters and the army and men of Hashd al-Shaabi, former paramilitaries backed by Tehran and integrated into Iraqi forces.
On Tuesday, doctors updated the toll of al-Sadr supporters killed at 30, with some 570 others injured – some with gunshot wounds and others suffering from tear gas inhalation.
A mass funeral was held Tuesday in Najaf, a Shiite holy city, for some of the protesters killed in Baghdad.
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 Shiite rivals, and his withdrawal on Monday catapulted Iraq into political uncertainty.
Sarkawt Shamsulddin, a former Iraqi MP, said that as long as there are “fundamental problems” and “corruption” in Iraq, there will always be grievances among the people, regardless of their affiliations.
“There are broader calls in Iraq for constitutional reforms…and there are also calls to get Iraq back on track economically,” Shamsulddin told Al Jazeera.
“The only problem preventing Iraqis from having a prosperous life is the political and ruling elite,” he said.
“Sadrists hold more than 300 senior political posts in government,” Shamsulddin said. “They are a big part of the current crisis in Iraq.”
Also on Tuesday, Iran reopened its borders with Iraq after a brief closure and resumed flights to the neighboring country.
Earlier on Tuesday, al-Sadr supporters could be seen on live television firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into the heavily fortified area through a section of torn down concrete walls. Security forces armed with machine guns inside the area fired back sporadically.
Al-Sadr’s nationalist rhetoric and his 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.