By SAMYA KULLAB and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA Associated Press
BAGHDAD (AP) — Supporters of an influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns into Iraq’s Green Zone and security forces responded Tuesday, in a serious escalation of a months-long political crisis gripping the nation.
The death toll rose to at least 30 people after two days of unrest, authorities said.
After cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced Monday that he would resign from politics, his supporters stormed the Green Zone, once the stronghold of the US military and now home to Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies. At least one country evacuated his embassy amid the chaos.
Iraq’s government has been deadlocked since al-Sadr’s party won the majority of seats in parliamentary elections in October, but not enough to secure a majority government, sparking months of infighting between different Shiite factions. . Al-Sadr refused to negotiate with his Iranian-backed Shiite rivals, and his withdrawal on Monday plunged Iraq into political uncertainty and volatility with no clear way out.
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Iran closed its borders to Iraq on Tuesday, a sign of Tehran’s concern that chaos could spread, though streets beyond the capital’s government quarter remained largely calm. The country’s vital oil continued to flow, with global benchmark Brent crude trading slightly lower.
A day after they stormed the Green Zone, 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 toppled concrete walls. Security forces armed with machine guns inside the area returned fire sporadically.
Some bystanders filmed the shooting on their mobile phones, though most hid behind the still-standing wall segments, grimacing as bullets exploded nearby. As al-Sadr’s forces fired, a line of armored tanks stood on the other side of the barriers surrounding the Green Zone, although they did not use their heavy weapons.
At least one wounded man from al-Sadr’s forces was taken away in a three-wheel rickshaw, with the Iraqi Foreign Ministry visible in the background. Dense black smoke at one point rose over the area, visible from kilometers (miles) away.
At least 30 people have been killed and more than 400 injured, two Iraqi medical officials said. The death toll included both al-Sadr loyalists killed in protests the day before and in 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 journalists.
Members of Iraq’s largely Shiite Muslim population were oppressed when Saddam Hussein ruled the country for decades. The US-led invasion in 2003 that overtook Saddam, a Sunni, upended the political order. Just under two-thirds of Iraq is Shiite, with one-third Sunni.
Now, Shiites are fighting among themselves after the Americans largely withdrew from the nation, with Iranian-backed Shiites and Iraqi nationalist Shiites vying for state power, influence and resources.
It is an explosive rivalry in a country where many remain under the influence of the Iranian government even though trade and ties remain strong between their peoples. Iraq and Iran fought a bloody war in the 1980s in which a million people died.
Al-Sadr’s nationalist rhetoric and reform agenda resonates powerfully with his followers, who largely come from the poorest sectors of Iraqi society and were historically excluded from the political system under Saddam.
Al-Sadr’s announcement that he is leaving politics has implicitly given his supporters the freedom to act as they see fit.
Iranian state television cited unrest and a military-imposed curfew on Iraqi cities as the reason for the border closures. He urged Iranians to avoid any trips to the neighboring country. The decision came as millions were preparing to visit Iraq for an annual pilgrimage to Shiite sites, and Tehran encouraged Iranian pilgrims already in Iraq to avoid further travel between cities.
Meanwhile, Kuwait asked its citizens to leave Iraq. The state news agency KUNA also encouraged those hoping to travel to Iraq to delay their plans.
The tiny Arab emirate on the Gulf of Kuwait shares a 254-kilometer (158-mile) long border with Iraq.
The Netherlands has evacuated its embassy in the Green Zone, Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra tweeted early Tuesday.
“There are shootings around the embassy in Baghdad. Our staff are now working at the German embassy in other parts of the city,” Hoekstra wrote.
Dubai’s long-haul airline Emirates halted flights to Baghdad on Tuesday due to the ongoing unrest. The carrier said he was “monitoring the situation closely.” He did not say when flights would resume.
On Monday, protesters loyal to al-Sadr tore down the concrete barriers outside the government palace with ropes and broke down the palace gates. Many rushed into the luxurious marble halls and halls of the palace, a key gathering place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.
The Iraqi army announced a countrywide curfew and the interim prime minister suspended cabinet sessions in response to the violence.
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