September 7, 2018 / 12:18 PM / 16 days ago

Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric demands end to violence as deadly protests rage

BASRA, Iraq, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite cleric called for a political shakeup in Baghdad and a halt to violence against demonstrators on Friday, after days of deadly protests tore through the main city in the south and shut the country’s main sea port.

Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the ultimate authority for most members of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, placed blame for the unrest with political leaders and said a new government should be formed, “different from its predecessors”.

At least 10 protesters have died since Monday in Basra, a city of 2 million people where residents who complain that infrastructure has collapsed — leaving them with no power or safe drinking water in the heat of summer — have torched government buildings and clashed with security forces.

On Thursday demonstrators escalated the unrest by shutting down Umm Qasr, the country’s main sea port, 60 km south of Basra, which handles the vast majority of imports into a country dependent on food bought abroad to feed its 37 million citizens.

It remained shut on Friday, local officials and security sources said. Iraq’s oil exports, which are carried out from offshore platforms, were unaffected.

Inside Basra, protesters stormed several provincial government buildings, torched the headquarters of the local government and blocked main roads in the city center.

“FAILINGS OF LEADERS”

Iraq’s politicians have so far failed to agree a new government after an inconclusive election in May. The new parliament finally met on Monday for the first time, but broke up after a day with no faction assembling enough votes to elect a speaker much less name the next prime minister.

Sistani, an 88-year-old cleric who normally holds himself above day-to-day politics, has been known to intervene in politics when he sees the country’s future in danger.

In his Friday prayer sermon read out by an aide he demanded an end to the use of violence against “peaceful protests” and placed the blame squarely on politicians for corruption, poverty and unemployment.

“The failings of Iraqi political leaders in recent years have caused the anger of people in Basra,” Sistani said.

“This reality cannot change if the next government is formed according to the same criteria adopted when forming previous governments. Pressure must be exerted for the new government to be different from its predecessors.”

Parliament’s interim leader summoned lawmakers to an emergency session on Saturday to discuss the unrest.

Iraq’s political factions mainly came together during a 2014-2017 war against Islamic State fighters who seized large swathes of the country’s north. Its two most influential allies, Washington and Tehran, also backed the Baghdad government despite their deep hostility to each other.

But since Islamic State was largely defeated last year, other divisions have re-emerged. Shi’ites in the south, where most of Iraq’s oil wealth is produced, say Baghdad politicians have squandered state funds while leaving them desperate.

Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shi’ite cleric whose electoral bloc came first in May’s election, said on Twitter that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi must release more funds for Basra to improve conditions there.

Sadr, the former leader of an anti-American Shi’ite sectarian militia who has reinvented himself as an anti-corruption campaigner, has allied himself with Abadi.

Their alliance is competing to form a government against a rival bloc backed by Abadi’s predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and the leader of an Iran-backed Shi’ite armed group, Hadi al-Amiri.

Sadr called on Thursday for an emergency parliament session and for Abadi and other senior officials to attend. Abadi said he would do so. (Reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Writing by Raya Jalabi Editing by Peter Graff)

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