Iraq: Dozens killed amid clashes in Baghdad after Moqtada al-Sadr quits politics

Relatives attend a funeral of a man killed during clashes with security in Baghdad during his funeral in Najaf. Credit: AP

Dozens of people have been killed in some of the worst fighting for years in Baghdad after tensions spilled over in response to an influential leader's decision to exit politics.

Unrest broke out on Monday when Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced his resignation from politics, prompting his loyalists to target the Green Zone, an area that houses government buildings and foreign embassies, and fight with rival groups.

At least 30 people have been killed and more than 400 injured, officials said, with the violence deepening the political crisis in Iraq, which has been in a state of paralysis since October's inconclusive elections.

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr enter the government palace during a demonstration in Baghdad. Credit: AP

According to reports, much of the fighting has been taking place between al-Sadr's militia, known as the Peace Brigades, Iran-aligned militias, and members of the Iraqi security forces.

Television footage showed supporters of al-Sadr firing heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Sadr loyalists who had been occupying the parliament building for weeks entered a government headquarters, where some jumped into a swimming pool, waving flags and cheering.

Clashes subsequently erupted between al-Sadr loyalists and supporters of the pro-Iran militias, who threw stones at each other near the Green Zone, before nighttime armed fighting broke out.

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr try to remove concrete barriers in the Green Zone area of Baghdad. Credit: AP

The death toll included both al-Sadr loyalists killed in protests on Monday and clashes that erupted overnight.

Iran has closed its borders with Iraq in response to the unrest, which has caused Iraq's military to declare a nationwide curfew and the Netherlands to evacuate its embassy in the Green Zone.

Al-Sadr, 48, has announced a hunger strike until the violence by all sides stops.

Muqtada al-Sadr makes a speech from his house in Najaf, Iraq. Credit: AP

Why is Iraq in a state of political crisis?

Iraq’s government has been deadlocked since al-Sadr’s party won the largest share of seats in October parliamentary elections but not enough to secure a majority government.

This unleashed months of infighting between different Shiite factions.

Al-Sadr refused to negotiate with his Iran-backed Shiite rivals, and his withdrawal on Monday has catapulted Iraq into political uncertainty with no clear path out.

The powerful cleric - whose nationalist rhetoric resonates with his supporters - holds widespread influence over state institutions and controls a paramilitary group made up of thousands of members.

His announcement that he is leaving politics has implicitly given his supporters the freedom to act as they see fit.

Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army - later rebranded as the Peace Brigades - emerged as one of the most powerful militias which fought US and the new Iraqi army after the 2003 invasion.

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