Protests subside after Sadr tells supporters to leave. 22 people killed in clashes in Baghdad.  Violence followed Sadr announcement he is leaving politics.

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 BAGHDAD, Aug 30 (Reuters) - Powerful cleric Moqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to end their protests in central Baghdad on Tuesday, easing a confrontation which led to the deadliest violence in the Iraqi capital in years.

Apologising to Iraqis after 22 people were killed in clashes between an armed group loyal to him and rival Shi'ite Muslim factions backed by Iran, Sadr condemned the fighting and gave his own followers one hour to disperse.

"This is not a revolution because it has lost its peaceful character," Sadr, a former anti-U.S. insurgent leader, said in a televised address. "The spilling of Iraqi blood is forbidden."

As the deadline passed at around 2 p.m. (1100 GMT), Sadr's followers could be seen leaving the area in the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad where government offices are located and where they had occupied parliament for weeks.

The clashes pitted loyalists of Sadr, who has positioned himself as a nationalist opposed to all foreign and especially Iranian influence, against political and armed groups backed by Iran.

Sadr emerged as the main winner in the election but failed in his efforts to form a government with Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish parties, excluding the Iran-backed Shi'ite groups.

"The government is powerless to stop this, because the military is divided into (Iran) loyalists and Sadrists as well," the official said.

Crucially, Sadr's Shi'ite, Iran-aligned opponents welcomed his call for calm, including Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the main rival political alliance to the populist cleric. "Sadr's initiative is brave and deserves praise," Amiri said in a statement.