According to officials, more than dozens have been left injured in the clashes after protesters loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr stormed the presidential palace following the announcement of his retirement from politics.
The caretaker prime minister of Iraq has called for calm and the military has declared a nationwide curfew after reports of unrest in several other cities.
In one of the worst cases of violence to hit the country in recent years, street fights broke out overnight with exchange of gun shots and firing of tracer rounds.
The more intense violence was witnessed around the city’s Green Zone which houses government buildings and foreign embassies. Videos on social media from in and around the place show some protestors using heavy weaponry, including rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
In the aftermath of the incident, Iran has closed its borders with Iraq amidst the fighting, while Kuwait has called on its citizens to leave the country at once.
According to AFP news agency, 15 supporters of Sadr were shot dead and around 350 protestors were injured in the violence.
A spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for “immediate steps to de-escalate the situation”.
The interim prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, an ally of Sadr, suspended cabinet meetings and pleaded with the cleric to intervene and stop the violence.
An aide to Sadr told Iraq’s state news agency INA that he had announced a hunger strike until the violence and use of weaponry was stopped.
These came after a day marred with violence sparked by the announcement of Sadr that he was moving away from political life, which he blamed on the refusal of rival Shia leaders and parties to reform the Iraqi political system.
Candidates loyal to Sadr had won the most seats in Iraq’s parliament in October but he failed to win enough seats to form a government. After that he refused to negotiate with Iranian backed Shia groups which led to almost a year of political instability.
In a statement, Sadr had said, “I had decided not to interfere in political affairs, but I now announce my final retirement and the closure of all [Sadrist] institutions.”
At 48, Sadr has become a prominent face in Iraqi public and political life for the last two decades. In the aftermath of the US invasion that toppled former ruler Saddam Hussain, his Mehdi army emerged as one of the most powerful militias to fight the US and allied Iraqi government forces.
It was later renamed to Peace Brigades and is still one of the biggest militias which forms a part of the Iraqi armed forces.
Although the Mehdi army had links to Iran, Sadr had latterly distanced himself from Iraq’s Shia neighbor repositioning himself as a nationalist wanting to end US and Iranian influence over the internal affairs of the country.
(With inputs from BBC)