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Cleric warns Iraqi leaders as protest death toll soars

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s sermon came hours after the prime minister called on protesters to go home.

(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

By Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Associated Press

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric has sharply criticised the government over deadly violence gripping the country, urging political leaders and protesters to pull back “before it is too late”.

The highly anticipated comments by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani came as the death toll in this week’s anti-government demonstrations climbed to 53.

In the latest violence, at least 10 protesters were killed during clashes in Baghdad.

His sermon came hours after Iraq’s prime minister called on protesters to go home, comparing security measures to “bitter medicine” that needs to be swallowed.

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Anti-government protesters burn an armoured vehicle (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Since Tuesday, security forces have fired live rounds and tear gas every day to disperse protesters across multiple provinces demanding job opportunities, improved services and an end to corruption.

The rallies have erupted spontaneously, mostly spurred by youths wanting jobs, improved services such as electricity and water, and an end to endemic corruption in the oil-rich country.

Authorities have cut internet access in much of Iraq since late Wednesday, in a desperate move to curb the rallies.

Mr al-Sistani blamed the leaders of the two biggest parliament blocs in particular, saying they had failed to make good on their promises.

“The government and the political sides have not fulfilled the demands of the people to fight corruption,” he said in his Friday sermon, delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

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A soldier flees the crowds (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Mr al-Sistani called on political leaders to take “practical and clear steps” towards combating corruption and on the government to “carry out its duty” to diminish people’s suffering.

He also reiterated his suggestion for a committee of technocrats tasked with making recommendations on fighting corruption, as a way out of the crisis.

Earlier in the day, PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi urged anti-government protesters to disband, saying their “legitimate demands” have been heard.

But dozens of protesters defied his message, gathering shortly before noon near Baghdad’s central Tahrir Square. Many had camped out on the streets overnight.

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Anti-government protesters in Baghdad (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Security forces responded by firing live bullets to disperse the crowd near Tahrir.

Meanwhile, Iraqi hospital officials reported nine more deaths in the southern city of Nasiriyah, bringing this week’s overall toll to 42.

Hospital officials said the deaths occurred late on Thursday. Nasiriyah has witnessed the most violence in the protests, with at least 25 people killed, including a policeman.

Mr Abdul-Mahdi spoke in a televised address to the nation, saying: “We will not make empty promises … or promise what we cannot achieve.”

He said there is “no magic solution” to Iraq’s problems but pledged to work on laws granting poor families a basic income, provide alternative housing to violators and fight corruption.

“The security measures we are taking, including temporary curfew, are difficult choices. But like bitter medicine, they are inevitable,” he said.

“We have to return life to normal in all provinces and respect the law.”

The prime minister also defended the nation’s security forces, saying they abide by strict rules against use of “excessive violence” and that it was the escalation of the protests that led to violence.

Meanwhile, an influential Shiite cleric whose political coalition came first in last year’s national elections suspended participation in parliamentary activities until the government introduces a programme that serves Iraqi aspirations.

Muqtada al-Sadr has asked members of his parliament bloc to boycott sessions until the government issues a programme acceptable to the people.

His Sairoon electoral list won the largest single bloc of 54 seats in the 329-member parliament.

PA

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