BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s leading Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday condemned the use of force to disperse protest camps across the country, as security forces stepped up a crackdown against demonstrators.
Protesters across Iraq are seeking the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling elite and an end to foreign interference in Iraqi politics, especially by Iran, which has come to dominate state institutions since dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest which began in October, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead. At least 11 have been killed since the protests resumed earlier this month.
Sistani, who delivered his message through a representative at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, also renewed calls for early elections to be held freely and fairly.
“It is imperative to hurry and hold an early election for the people to have their say, and for the next parliament to be formed from their free will, to take the necessary steps towards reform,” he said.
He said that the next parliament would be able “to take decisive measures that will determine the future of the country, especially regarding the preservation of its sovereignty and the independence of its political decisions.”
Separately, populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Friday called for a mass protest in the capital Baghdad and for sit-ins near the fortified Green Zone to protest the delayed formation of a government, without specifying when the gatherings should take place.
“I find that it is beneficial to renew the peaceful reformist revolution,” Sadr said in a statement on Friday.
Iraq has been without a government since Dec. 1, when parliament accepted Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s resignation after weeks of violent anti-government protests. He has, however, stayed on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is chosen.
Sadr, who has millions of supporters in the capital and in the south, had backed the demands of protesters for the removal of corrupt politicians and for the provision of services and jobs soon after the demonstrations began in October. But he stopped short of calling all his followers to join in.
His supporters had previously bolstered the protesters and sometimes helped shield them from attacks by security forces and unidentified gunmen. They withdrew from the main sit-in camps last week at his request.
Tensions in Iraq boiled over when the United States killed Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at Baghdad airport on Jan. 3. Iran responded with missile attacks on two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops.
Baghdad condemned both the killing of Soleimani and Iran’s missile attacks as acts of aggression on Iraq and a breach of its sovereignty.
Five shells landed on Friday near Qayyara airbase, which houses U.S. and Iraqi forces, in Nineveh province without causing any casualties or damage, a military statement said. Similar attacks have taken place regularly over the last few months.
Sistani also “strongly condemned” U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
“The religious authority condemns strongly the oppressive plan that has been unveiled recently to legitimise the occupation of more Palestinian lands,” Sistani said.
Reporting by Nadine Awadalla and John Davison; Additional reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo; Editing by William Maclean, Hugh Lawson and Daniel Wallis