Iraqi leaders are on a damage control mode a day after clashes between followers of a cleric and police in Baghdad left at least four people dead.
Influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to withdraw from a central square in Baghdad where they had gathered to demand political reforms.
“If any of my followers resorts to violence and does not withdraw or engages in an act of sabotage to put security in Baghdad or Iraq in jeopardy, I disavow it,” he wrote on his twitter account.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meanwhile, called for an investigation into allegations by pro-Sadr sources that eight demonstrators had been killed in the clashes and more than 300 others injured.
The clashes began after thousands gathered in the central Tahrir Square to demand an overhaul of a commission that supervises elections ahead of a provincial poll due in September.
Police tried to disperse them as they attempted to cross the bridge that links the square and the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses government buildings, embassies and international organizations.
Several Katyusha rockets then hit the Green Zone on Saturday evening, but there were no casualties, a military spokesman said.
Sadr issued a statement saying the demonstration was peaceful and accused the police of using excessive force. He said his supporters wanted to get near the Green Zone to make their voices heard, and had no intention of storming it again.
An interior ministry statement said guns and knives were found on some protesters. Baghdad Governor Ali al-Tamimi said four protesters were killed in the mayhem.
“The demonstrators tried to cross Jumhuriya Bridge, the security forces fired tear gas to stop them but they insisted,” a senior police official said.
Iraqi news website Alghad Press reported on Sunday that two of the fatalities and 70 of those injured were members of the security forces.
As protesters approached Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone, however, police fired teargas to disperse them.
Some among the crowd, meanwhile, tried to break through a security cordon guarding the main road to Green Zone.
Sadr’s movement had earlier asserted that it had nothing to do with acts of violence and destruction during the rally.
Saraya al-Salam (the Peace Brigades), a militia group formed by the cleric, released a statement, condemning the attacks and saying it roundly spurned such acts of violence.
Some, it added, were staging such acts to sow sedition among the Iraqi people and lay obstacles in the way of reforms and eradication of corruption.
Government under pressure
The escalation by Sadr followers comes at the wrong time for Abadi who wants to keep the focus on dislodging Daesh terrorists from the northern city of Mosul.
On Saturday, the al-Sumariah television said the Takfiri terror group had burned 15 civilians, including a number of children, alive in the northwestern province of Kirkuk.
The group meted the punishment out to the victims for their alleged attept at leaving the areas under the rule of “the Caliphate” to the neighboring Kirkuk Province.
The country has been leading an incisive push to vanquish the terrorists, who have been plighting it since 2014. The operations have confined the outfit to a handful of areas.
Also, a security source said a roadside bomb explosion in Diyala Province, which neighbors Salahuddin, had killed five members of the popular forces battling the terrorists, and injured two others.