Gunfire and explosions rang out across Baghdad on Monday night after heavily armed rival militias confronted each other in the Green Zone, the seat of government that includes foreign embassies.
On Monday afternoon, clashes erupted between supporters of Iraq's nationalist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and security forces, while Iran-backed militias linked to rival coalition the Co-ordination Framework circled the area.
The army ordered a nationwide curfew from 7pm on Monday after Mr Al Sadr's supporters stormed the Republican Palace used for diplomatic meetings in the Green Zone.
But the movement of armed groups appeared not to have been affected and they were able to send convoys to the centre of government power.
“The Joint Operations Command set a curfew in all governorates of Iraq, starting at seven in the evening today, until further notice,” the agency said in a statement.
A relatively neutral institution, the army has been caught in the middle of the rivalry between Mr Al Sadr and the Co-ordination Framework — a political coalition linked to US-designated terrorist groups, including Kataib Hezbollah, which has been accused of killing coalition soldiers and Iraqi protesters.
The curfew follows Mr Al Sadr's statement that he is resigning from political life and closing the offices of his movement after months of attempting to form a new government since October's general election.
He said the Co-ordination Framework has obstructed his right to form a government using unconstitutional legal challenges and boycotts of parliament.
Mr Al Sadr's coalition, which he withdrew from parliament in June, won the plurality of seats and technically could have formed the next government.
By Monday afternoon, images and videos were circulating on social media showing followers of Mr Al Sadr entering the palace inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, where heavy gunfire could be heard.
The US government on Monday evening denied rumours that it would evacuate its embassy, also located in the area.
Eight protesters were confirmed killed, AFP reported, and in the south, demonstrators took over local government offices in the provinces of Basra and Dhi Qar, while marching through the town of Al Amarah near Iran.
In Baghdad, supporters of Mr Al Sadr said gunmen in Iran-backed militias — who are known to have a presence in the Green Zone — had fired on the crowds.
Late on Monday, plumes of smoke could be seen from areas near parliament in the Green Zone, where Mr Al Sadr's followers had camped. Local reports suggested that firefighters were prevented from responding by gunfire.
In Baghdad, tear gas was fired to disperse demonstrators outside the palace as gunshots were heard, local media reported.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi called on Mr Al Sadr's supporters to withdraw from the Green Zone, where they have been camped for weeks to prevent the cleric's rivals from attempting to form a government.
“The dangerous developments that took place in our dear Iraq today points to the serious consequences of the political differences,” Mr Al Kadhimi said in a statement issued by his office.
The storming of state institutions “is a condemned act and lies outside of the legal contexts”.
“We are calling Sayyid Moqtada Al Sadr, who has always supported the state and emphasised keenness on its prestige and respect for the security forces, to call all demonstrators to withdraw from government institutions,” he said.
Mr Al Kadhimi called for restraint and said the country's political differences would damage state institutions.
A year of tension
Since the end of July, Mr Al Sadr's followers have been encamped around parliament, blocking access to government buildings. This has hampered a vital stage in government formation whereby parliamentarians must choose a new president, who then nominates the winning political bloc.
Mr Al Sadr had withdrawn his MPs from parliament, protesting against what he called widespread corruption. The formation of the new government had already been in disarray for months, amid claims by Mr Al Sadr that the Co-ordination Framework had committed election fraud.
“I had decided not to interfere in the political affairs,” Mr Al Sadr said. “Now I announce my final retirement and the closure of all institutions, except for the Holy Shrine, the Sharif Museum and the Al Sadr Heritage Institute.”
Mr Al Sadr criticised fellow Shiite political leaders for failing to heed his calls for reform. No further information was given about the closure of his offices, but he said that some of his cultural and religious institutions would remain open.
His resignation came a day after Iraqi President Barham Salih held talks with special UN representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and the prime minister to discuss the political crisis.
A statement released by the president’s office said the meetings “discussed ways to get out of the existing crisis, stressing the importance of adopting dialogue among all to reach satisfactory results that guarantee the security and stability of Iraq”.
Breaking the deadlock
Iraq has been gripped by political deadlock since national elections last October, despite Mr Al Sadr's bloc winning 73 seats — the plurality in the 329-member assembly. The cleric rejected calls to form a unity government with the Co-ordination Framework.
After ordering his supporters to enter parliament, Mr Al Sadr has demanded that it be dissolved and early elections held.
In addition to withdrawing his MPs from parliament, Mr Al Sadr has quit Iraqi politics several times before. The most recent occasion was in June 2021 when he said he would close the office of his movement and would not participate in national elections held later that year.
But his movement returned — albeit under a different name ― gaining significantly in the polls after a nationwide protest movement boycotted the vote.
At the time, Mr Al Sadr said he would withdraw support for “current and future governments”, but retained strong influence through his supporters in key ministries including health and electricity.
In February 2014, when Iraq was gripped by conflict as ISIS began its advance across parts of the country, Mr Al Sadr said he would resign from politics to “preserve the good name of the Al Sadr family and avoid sedition inside and outside Iraq”.
His archrival at the time was the former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, who remains his chief opponent today, a member of the Co-ordination Framework.
Mr Al Sadr’s call to hold early elections — which he said he would not participate in — was strongly opposed by Mr Al Maliki, whose State of Law coalition increased its share of seats in October’s poll.
But Mr Al Sadr’s pledge to “finally” retire from politics may carry more weight than his previous exits from the political scene.
Major figures in the movement have been ordered to close down social media accounts — a vital medium of communication for the cleric, who is well known for his frequent use of Twitter to release important statements, including his most recent resignation.