BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s most powerful Shia cleric called for security forces to protect anti-government protesters in a Friday sermon, after weeks of violence in Baghdad and southern Iraq, and amid seething tensions between demonstrators and followers of a radical preacher.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s words came two days after at least eight protesters were killed in the holy southern city of Najaf. They died when followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed a protest site and fired live rounds.
Al-Sistani, a revered Shia religious figure whose opinion holds sway over Iraqis, said security forces were “indispensable” and responsible for maintaining law and order. His comments came in his weekly Friday sermon delivered by a representative in Najaf. He directly condemned Wednesday’s attack.
Security forces “must bear the responsibility for maintaining security and stability, protecting peaceful protests and protest sites, uncovering the aggressors and infiltrators,” he said.
At least eight anti-government protesters were shot dead and 52 were wounded in the clashes with followers of al-Sadr in Najaf on Wednesday. Al-Sadr initially threw his weight behind the anti-government uprising but recently re-positioned himself toward the political establishment after political elites selected Mohammed Allawi as prime minister-designate, a candidate he endorsed.
Since then, al-Sadr has issued a dizzying array of calls to followers, asking them to return to the streets days after withdrawing support from protests. The often contradictory orders have exacerbated existing tensions between anti-government demonstrators and his followers, with some activists claiming al-Sadr’s followers had threatened them to toe the cleric’s line or leave protest sites.
Since then, clashes have taken place between followers of the cleric and protesters in Baghdad, and other provinces of southern Iraq.
Anti-government protesters who took to the streets on Oct. 1 in Baghdad and southern Iraq to decry rampant government corruption, poor services and unemployment, have rejected Allawi’s candidacy. At least 500 have died under fire from security forces in the movement, now in it’s fifth month.
Al-Sistani also reiterated calls for the speedy establishment of a new government in line with the demands of the protesters.
“The new government that replaces the resigned government must be worthy of the trust of the people and capable of calming the situation, regaining the prestige of the state and taking the necessary steps to hold early elections in a reassuring atmosphere,” he said.
Allawi was selected as prime minister-designate by rival blocs last week. He has 30 days to present a cabinet and government program which parliament is expected to put to a vote.
Reporting by Samya Kullab
Image: Smoke rises from the sites of anti-government protests in Najaf, Iraq, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. Iraqi officials and activists say multiple anti-government protesters have been shot dead and dozens wounded in clashes with followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)