ROME – Pope Francis Wednesday offered prayers for the victims of violent political protests in Iraq that have left over 20 people dead, saying dialogue and fraternity are the only way to resolve the country’s current difficulties.

Speaking during his Aug. 31 general audience, the pope said he is “following with concern the events that have taken place in Baghdad in recent days.”

“We ask God in prayer to grant peace to the Iraqi people,” he said, and recalled his visit to the country early last year.

While there, “I felt up close the great desire for normality and peaceful coexistence among different religious communities that make it up,” he said, saying, “Dialogue and fraternity are the high road for confronting current difficulties and arriving at this goal.”

At least 23 people have died over the past few days in what is the worst fighting Baghdad has seen in years following the decision by a key leader to step down from politics.

Violence erupted Monday after Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most influential leaders, said he was withdrawing from political life amid Iraq’s political stalemate following the country’s inconclusive elections last year.

Al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement won the most seats in parliament during last October’s election, but they have been unable to agree on the formation of a government with the second largest majority, composed mainly of Iran-backed parties.

A former Iranian ally, al-Sadr has more recently positioned himself as a nationalist whose goal is to end American and Iranian influence over Iraq’s internal affairs.

Given the nearly year-long stalemate, frustrated demonstrators stormed Iraqi’s parliament and high-security Green Zone in late July to protest the political deadlock, forcing their way in the legislative chamber of parliament and staging a lengthy sit-in.

On Monday, gunshots and rocket fire rang out as supporters of al-Sadr clashed with security forces and Iran-backed militias.

Much of the fighting has been concentrated in the city’s Green Zone, which is a heavily fortified area composed of government buildings and foreign embassies, prompting Dutch embassy staff to evacuate and move to the German mission headquarters to avoid the violence.

The army imposed a nationwide curfew on Monday in response to the fighting.

According to AFP news agency, all of those killed were supporters of al-Sadr, while an additional 380 were wounded.

Al-Sadr has since apologized to Iraqis for the unrest and ordered his supporters to withdraw from outside parliament, prompting the army to lift the curfew once protesters began to disperse.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen