Iraq’s powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to end their protests in central Baghdad on Tuesday, easing a confrontation that led to the deadliest violence in the Iraqi capital in years.
Apologising to Iraqis after 22 people were killed in clashes between an armed group loyal to him and rival Shi’ite faction backed by Iran, Moqtada al-Sadr condemned the fighting and gave his own followers one hour to disperse.
“This is not a revolution because it has lost its peaceful character,” Moqtada al-Sadr, a former anti-US insurgent leader, said in a televised address. “The spilling of Iraqi blood is forbidden.”
As the deadline passed at around 2pm (1100 GMT), Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers could be seen beginning to leave the area in the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad where government offices are located and where they had occupied parliament for weeks.
Monday’s clashes between rival factions of Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority follow 10 months of political deadlock since Iraq’s October parliamentary election, which have raised fears of escalating unrest.
Moqtada al-Sadr emerged as the main winner in the election but failed in his efforts to form a government with Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish parties, excluding the Iran-backed Shi’ite groups.
This week’s violence erupted after al-Sadr said he was withdrawing from all political activity – a decision he said was in response to the failure of other Shi’ite leaders and parties to reform a corrupt and decaying governing system.
The Iraqi military declared an open-ended nationwide curfew on Monday and urged the protesters to leave the Green Zone. But an Iraqi government official, speaking on condition of anonymity shortly before Moqtada al-Sadr’s call to end the protests, said authorities could not impose control on the rival armed groups.
“The government is powerless to stop this, because the military is divided into (Iran) loyalists and Sadrists as well,” the official said.
Earlier on Tuesday militants fired rockets at the Green Zonea nd gunmen cruised in pickup trucks carrying machine guns and brandishing grenade launchers, while most residents observed the curfew. Overnight, gun and rocket fire rang out across the city.