Top Iraq cleric urges forces, protesters to show restraint - GulfToday

Top Iraq cleric urges forces, protesters to show restraint


An injured protester is rushed to a hospital during a demonstration in central Baghdad on Friday. Associated Press

Iraq’s spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, urged both protesters and security forces on Friday to exercise “restraint” to keep renewed demonstrations from degenerating into “chaos.”

Sistani’s weekly sermon was delivered by his representatives shortly after two demonstrators died in renewed protests in Baghdad on Friday.

He called on demonstrators to stay peaceful and said security forces should “deal with them with the utmost restraint.”

“The authority’s insistence that protests must remain peaceful, without any violence, stems not only from its interest in keeping protesters and security forces from being hurt but also from its extreme care for the country’s future,” he said.

“Chaos and ruin,” he warned, would “pave the way for more external interference.”

His sermon appeared to echo the package of reforms put forward by Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, including an anti-corruption campaign, a job creation drive and improved social welfare.

Sistani, who is widely revered among Iraq’s Shiite majority, had given Abdel Mahdi until Oct.25 to respond to protester demands to fight corruption and unemployment. In a televised speech late on Friday, Abdel Mahdi defended his reform plans.

Anti-government rallies have renewed across Iraq, the second phase of protests that turned deadly earlier this month and which could balloon after the endorsement of populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.

Iraq was rocked by demonstrations in early October, first denouncing corruption and unemployment before evolving into calls for an overhaul of the political system.

They quieted after a crushing response by security forces and resumed on Friday, which marks a year since embattled Mahdi came to power.

But hundreds descended into the streets of the Iraqi capital earlier than anticipated.

They gathered in Baghdad’s iconic Tahrir (Liberation) Square late on Thursday, carrying Iraq’s tricolour flag and calling for the country’s entrenched political class to be “uprooted.”

A few dozen headed towards the high-security Green Zone, which hosts government offices and foreign embassies, but were pushed back by security forces using water cannons.

Other rallies erupted in the southern cities of Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah, where demonstrators said they would remain in the streets “until the regime falls.”

Just after midnight, Abdel Mahdi made a scheduled televised appearance ahead of the larger protests expected the following day.

He defended his reform agenda including a cabinet reshuffle and told the protesters it was their “right” to demonstrate as long as they did not “disturb public life.”

But in an unusually critical tone, the premier complained that previous governments had not faced the same kind of level of scrutiny and said political figures demanding “reform” had themselves failed to enact it.

Abdel Mahdi’s comments appeared to be a reference to Sadr, the influential ex-militiaman who controls the largest parliamentary bloc, itself called the “Alliance towards Reform.”

Many expect Sadr’s supporters to hit the streets in large numbers on Friday afternoon, after the weekly sermon of Sistani.

The mass rallies that erupted on Oct.1 were unprecedented in recent Iraqi history both because of their spontaneity and independence, and because of the brutal violence with which they were met.

At least 157 people were killed, according to a government probe published on Tuesday, which acknowledged that “excessive force” was used.

A vast majority of them were protesters in Baghdad, with 70 per cent shot in the head or chest.

In response, Abdel Mahdi issued a laundry list of measures meant to ease public anger, including hiring drives and higher pensions for the families of protesters who died.

One in five people lives under the poverty line in Iraq and youth unemployment sits around 25 per cent , according to the World Bank.

The rates are staggering for OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer, which ranks the 12th most corrupt state in the world according to Transparency International.

The country has been ravaged by decades of conflict that finally calmed in 2017 with a declared victory over the Daesh group.


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