Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr gave his followers "60 minutes" to disperse from Baghdad's streets following two days of deadly clashes between protesters and security forces.

Iran reopened its border with Iraq to travellers on Tuesday shortly after al Sadr called on his supporters to withdraw from the streets, state media reported.
Iran reopened its border with Iraq to travellers on Tuesday shortly after al Sadr called on his supporters to withdraw from the streets, state media reported. (AA)

Iraqi supporters of cleric Muqtada al Sadr have began withdrawing from Baghdad's Green Zone after he demanded fighting end between Shia forces and the army that left 23 dead and hundreds wounded.

On Tuesday, al Sadr gave his followers "60 minutes" to withdraw after which he would threaten to "disavow" those who remained.

Moments after al Sadr's speech was broadcast live on television, his supporters were seen beginning to leave the Green Zone, and minutes after that, the army lifted a nation-wide curfew.

"I apologise to the Iraqi people, the only ones affected by the events," al Sadr said in a speech from his base in the central city of Najaf.

"Shame on this revolution... Regardless of who was the initiator, this revolution, as long as it is marred by violence, is not a revolution," he said. 

The violence that erupted on Monday pitted al Sadr loyalists against Shia factions backed by neighbouring Iran, with the sides exchanging gunfire across barricades  — violence the United Nations warned risked tipping the war-ravaged country deeper into chaos.

"I thank the security forces and members of Hashd al Shaabi," al Sadr added.

READ MORE: Shelling hits Baghdad Green Zone as Sadr resignation stirs deadly clashes

Dangerous escalation 

Tensions have soared in Iraq amid a political crisis that has left the country without a new government, prime minister or president for months.

They escalated sharply after Sadr's supporters on Monday afternoon stormed the government palace inside the high-security Green Zone following their leader's announcement that he was quitting politics.

Overnight, shelling targeted the Green Zone that houses government buildings and diplomatic missions. Violence continued on Tuesday morning — with the rattle of automatic gunfire and heavier explosions of rocket-propelled grenades.

The UN mission in Iraq warned of "an extremely dangerous escalation" and called on all sides to "refrain from acts that could lead to an unstoppable chain of events".

"The very survival of the state is at stake," it warned.

On Tuesday morning, medics said 23 Sadr supporters had been killed and some 380 others wounded — some with bullet wounds and others suffering tear gas inhalation.

A mass funeral was held on Tuesday in the Shia holy city of Najaf for some of the protesters killed in Baghdad.

Witnesses said earlier that Sadr loyalists and supporters of a rival Shia bloc, the pro-Iran Coordination Framework, had exchanged fire. The Framework condemned an "attack on state institutions", urging the protesters to engage in dialogue.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi said "security or military forces, or armed men" were prohibited from opening fire on protesters.

READ MORE: Situation tense in Iraq as death toll from violent clashes mounts

Source: AFP