Armed supporters of a powerful Iraqi cleric who clashed with security forces in Baghdad began to withdraw from the streets Tuesday, restoring a measure of calm after a serious escalation of the country's political crisis.
Following two days of deadly unrest that sparked fears instability might spread throughout Iraq and even the region, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told his supporters to leave the government quarter where they had rallied. Within minutes, some could be seen heeding the call, dismantling their tents and walking out of the area known as the green zone.
Iraq's military also announced the lifting of a nationwide curfew, further raising hopes that the immediate crisis was ebbing, though larger political problems remain.
"This is not a revolution," al-Sadr said in a televised address, which followed pleas for restraint and peace from several Iraqi officials and the United Nations.
Al-Sadr resigned suddenly Monday amid a political impasse and his supporters quickly stormed the green zone, once the stronghold of the U.S. military that's now home to Iraqi government offices and foreign embassies.
"Deeply alarmed by clashes across #Iraq this evening," tweeted Gregory Galligan, Canada's ambassador to Iraq. "The situation is very dangerous and could quickly spiral beyond control. Canada urges all parties to take steps to quickly de-escalate the situation and to resolve differences through negotiation for the benefit of all Iraqis."
The Canadian embassy in Baghdad had advised Canadians in Iraq to "leave by commercial means, when permitted and it is safe to do so."
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 — unleashing months of infighting between different Shia factions. Al-Sadr refused to negotiate with his Iran-backed Shia rivals, and his withdrawal Monday has catapulted Iraq into political uncertainty and volatility with no clear path out.
We have changed the risk level for <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Iraq?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Iraq</a> to “Avoid all travel” due to significant armed clashes. If you are in Iraq, leave by commercial means, when it is safe to do so. More info here: <a href="https://t.co/8YZUfj9obj">https://t.co/8YZUfj9obj</a> <a href="https://t.co/cvvpch05kB">pic.twitter.com/cvvpch05kB</a>—@TravelGoC
Bullets, grenades fly
The violence threatened to deepen the political crisis, though streets elsewhere in the country largely remained calm and the country's vital oil continued to flow. Iran closed off its borders to Iraq — a sign of Tehran's concern that the chaos could spread.
Live television footage showed supporters of al-Sadr firing both heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades into the heavily fortified green zone through a section of pulled-down concrete walls. Bystanders, seemingly oblivious to the danger, filmed the gunfight with their mobile phones.
As al-Sadr's forces fired, a line of armoured tanks stood on the other side of the barriers that surround the green zone. Heavy black smoke at one point rose over the area, visible from kilometres away.
At least one wounded man was taken away in a three-wheel rickshaw, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry visible in the background.
At least 30 people have been killed and more than 400 wounded, two Iraqi medical officials said. The toll included both al-Sadr loyalists killed in protests the day before and clashes overnight. Those figures are expected to rise, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information to journalists.
Members of Iraq's Shia Muslim sect were oppressed when Saddam Hussein ruled the country, but the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 reversed the political order. Just under two-thirds of Iraq is Shia, with a third Sunni.
Now the Shia are fighting among themselves, with Iranian-backed Shia and Iraqi nationalist Shias jockeying for power, influence and state resources.
Al-Sadr's nationalist rhetoric and reform agenda resonates powerfully with his supporters, who largely hail from Iraq's poorest sectors of society and had historically been shut out from the political system under Saddam.
Iranian state television cited unrest and a military-imposed curfew in Iraqi cities for the reason for the border closures. It urged Iranians avoid any travel to the neighbouring country. The decision came as millions were preparing to visit Iraq for an annual pilgrimage to Shia sites, and Tehran encouraged any Iranian pilgrims already in Iraq to avoid further travel between cities.
Flights, embassy services cancelled
Kuwait, meanwhile, called on its citizens to leave Iraq. The state-run Kuwait News Agency also encouraged those hoping to travel to Iraq to delay their plans.
The tiny Gulf Arab sheikhdom of Kuwait shares a 254-kilometre-long border with Iraq.
The Netherlands evacuated its embassy in the green zone, its foreign affairs minister tweeted early Tuesday.
"There are firefights around the embassy in Baghdad. Our staff are now working at the German embassy elsewhere in the city," Wopke Hoekstra wrote.
Dubai's long-haul carrier Emirates stopped flights to Baghdad on Tuesday over the ongoing unrest. The carrier said that it was "monitoring the situation closely." It did not say when flights would resume.
On Monday, protesters loyal to al-Sadr pulled down the cement barriers outside the government palace with ropes and breached the palace gates. Many rushed into the lavish salons and marbled halls of the palace, a key meeting place for Iraqi heads of state and foreign dignitaries.
Iraq's military announced a nationwide curfew, and the caretaker premier suspended cabinet sessions in response to the violence.
With files from CBC News