Influential Shia’ite cleric from Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr, has urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down to spare his country further bloodshed, Reuters reported on Sunday. Appealing to Assad to take the “historic, heroic decision” to give up power, the cleric also criticised the United States’ strike on an airbase in Syria that was used to launch a chemical attack in Idlib province that left more than 70 people dead and scores injured.

Sadr commands a large following in Baghdad and other cities and is the first Iraqi Shia’ite cleric to urge Assad to step down. “I think it would be fair for President Bashar al-Assad to offer his resignation and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism ...and take a historic, heroic decision before it is too late,” he said in a statement.

The move is significant as Shia’ite Iran is one of the principal backers of the Syrian government led by Assad. Sadr’s appeal also shows the difficult balancing act Iraq has had to maintain between Iran and the United States. The Iraq government had on Friday released a statement condemning the chemical attack but also criticising the American response as “hasty”. Echoing the government line, Sadr also said that the American strike would “drag the region to war” and could help “the expansion of Daesh [the Islamic State group]”.

The United States is one of Iraq’s biggest allies in its fight against the Islamic State group, which controls swathes of Iraq and Syria. The US has been providing air and ground support to the Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State militants and have helped the country recapture most of the cities that it had lost to them.