After an influential Shia cleric announced his resignation from Iraqi politics, hundreds of his angry supporters stormed the government palace, sparking violent clashes with security forces, killing at least 15 people. of protesters died.

Several protesters were injured in gunfire and a dozen more were hit with tear gas and physical altercations with riot police at protests following the announcement of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, medical officials said. said he was injured in

The Iraqi army announced a nationwide curfew, and the caretaker prime minister suspended a cabinet meeting in response to the turmoil.

The Iraqi government has been in a stalemate, with Sadr’s party winning the largest share of seats in October’s parliamentary elections, but not enough to secure a government majority.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr bring down a concrete barrier in the Green Zone area of ​​Baghdad, Iraq. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

His refusal to negotiate with Iran-backed Shia rivals and his subsequent withdrawal from negotiations has plunged the country into political uncertainty and instability amid escalating disputes within the Shia. urged.

To further his political interests, Mr. Sadr wrapped his rhetoric with a nationalist and reform agenda. This resonates strongly among his broad grassroots base, who hails from Iraq’s poorest societies and has historically been shut out of the political system.

They are calling for the dissolution of parliament and early elections without the participation of Iran-backed groups.

Hundreds of protesters roped down a cement barrier outside the government palace and breached the palace gates during Monday’s riots.

Thousands flooded the palace’s opulent salons and marble halls, an important meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.

An Associated Press cameraman heard gunshots go off and saw several injured protesters being carried away, bleeding.

Protests have also erupted in Shiite-majority southern provinces, with Sadr’s supporters burning tires and blocking roads in oil-rich Basra province, and hundreds outside the government building in Misan. did a demo.

Iraqi security forces block protesters from entering federal court during demonstrations in Baghdad (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Iran sees discord within Shiites as a threat to its influence in Iraq and has repeatedly attempted to broker a dialogue with Sadr.

In July, al-Sadr’s supporters invaded parliament to dissuade rivals in the Coordination Framework, an alliance of Shia political parties largely allied with Iran, from forming a government.

Hundreds have been sitting outside the building for more than four weeks.

His bloc also resigned from Congress.

The Framework is headed by Sadr’s nemesis and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

It is not the first time Sadr, who has called for early elections and the dissolution of parliament, has announced his retirement from politics, and many say he will seek greater leverage over his rivals as the stalemate worsens. Scoffed at the latest move as a new bluff to get. .

Clerics have used this tactic on previous occasions when political developments were not going their way.

But many fear that this is a dangerous ruse and how it will affect Iraq’s fragile political climate.

Iraqi security forces fire tear gas at Muqtada al-Sadr followers inside Baghdad’s government palace (Hadi Mizban/AP)

By stepping out of the political process, Al-Sadr is giving his supporters, the most disenfranchised from the political system, the green light to act as they see fit.

Al-Sadr derives political power from his large grassroots supporters, but he also commands militias.

He also maintains significant influence within Iraq’s state institutions by appointing key civil servant positions.

His Iran-backed rivals also have militia groups.

The Iraqi military swiftly announced a nationwide curfew beginning at 7pm local time.

According to a statement, it called on clergy supporters to immediately withdraw from the heavily fortified government zone and practice self-restraint “to prevent clashes and the spilling of Iraqi blood.”

“Security forces affirm their responsibility to protect government agencies, international missions, public and private property,” the statement said.

Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has called on al-Sadr to ask his supporters to withdraw from government institutions.

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr wave national flags from the roof of the government palace (Hadi Mizban/AP)

He also announced that he would cancel the Cabinet meeting.

The clergy announced in a tweet that they were withdrawing from politics and ordered the closure of party offices.

Religious and cultural venues will remain open.

The UN mission in Iraq said Monday’s protests were a “very dangerous escalation” and urged demonstrators to vacate all government buildings so the interim government can continue to run the country. called.

He urged everyone to keep the peace and “abstain from actions that could lead to an unstoppable chain of events.”

“The very existence of the state is at stake,” the statement said.

Al-Sadr’s announcement on Monday appeared to be part of a reaction to the retirement of Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Kadim Al-Haeli, who counts many of Al-Sadr’s supporters as followers.

A day earlier, Ayatollah al-Haeli announced he was stepping down from his position as a religious authority for health reasons, telling his supporters to return to Iran, rather than to the Shiite spiritual center of Iraq’s holy city of Najaf. He called on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to pledge allegiance.

The move was a blow to Al Sadr.

In his statement, he said Ayatollah Al-Haeli’s resignation was “not of his own volition”.

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