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Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr tells supporters to leave Green Zone: 'I don't want revolution'

Shiite protesters loyal to Shiite cleric and Sadrist movement leader Moqtada al-Sadr, some of whom are armed, clash with government forces in the Green Zone in central Baghdad on Tuesday. Some have died in the clashes, which began Monday. Photo by Ahmed Jalil/EPA-EFE
Shiite protesters loyal to Shiite cleric and Sadrist movement leader Moqtada al-Sadr, some of whom are armed, clash with government forces in the Green Zone in central Baghdad on Tuesday. Some have died in the clashes, which began Monday. Photo by Ahmed Jalil/EPA-EFE

Aug. 30 (UPI) -- Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his supporters Tuesday to leave the government quarter in Baghdad, where they have been fighting for two days with security forces, deepening the country's political crisis.

Sadr, who's long been an opponent to Iran and the United States, announced his resignation from politics this week, leading supporters to protest in the streets. They eventually overwhelmed Baghdad's Green Zone and fought with government security officers, some of whom are members of Iran-backed Shiite paramilitary groups.

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By Tuesday, officials said about two dozen people have been killed in the clashes.

Many government offices and foreign embassies are located in the Green Zone, which was an area occupied by U.S. forces during the war in Iraq in the mid-2000s.

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Sadr's announcement and the resulting violence has deepened Iraq's political crisis -- which has been brewing since Sadr's party won a large share of seats in parliament last October, but not enough to constitute a majority government.

"I apologize to the Iraqi people," Sadr told his followers on Tuesday, according to The Washington Post. "I was hoping for a peaceful demonstration, not with mortars and weapons.

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"I don't want such revolution."

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Some of Sadr's armed supporters dispersed after his speech.

Zeidon Alkinani, a fellow at the Washington-based think tank Arab Centre, noted this isn't the first time Sadr has quit politics.

"It is not the first time that al-Sadr claims he will make sure to freeze operations of any association that is affiliated with his movement," Alkinani told Al Jazeera.

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"There might be a speculation that is spreading, that his attempt to announce that he is politically resigning is an indirect attempt to escape accountability from whatever Saraya Salam has done and will continue to do."

The Saraya Salam, known as the Peace Brigades, has participated in the fighting with other armed factions affiliated with political parties within the rival pro-Iran Coordination Framework group.

Sadr's supporters similarly stormed Baghdad's government quarter in July, which led to dozens of injuries. Then, they were opposing the Coordination Framework's nomination of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani for prime minister. Iraqi forces responded with tear gas and water cannons.

On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad called for peace and dialogue amid the reports of violence in the Green Zone.

Iran, which has tried in recent years to unify Shiite factions in Iraq, closed its borders with Iraq on Monday as a result of the violence and told Iranian nationals in Iraq that it would provide a safe return.

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Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war between 1980 and 1988. The outcome was a stalemate, with both sides claiming victory. But both sides also failed to achieve their primary objectives. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed during the conflict.

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