Elect new PM with no ‘foreign interference,’ urges Iraqi cleric - GulfToday

Elect new PM with no ‘foreign interference,’ urges Iraqi cleric


Protesters hold pictures of people who were killed during demonstrations in Baghdad on Friday. Reuters

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric said on Friday he was not taking part in talks on the country’s new premier, as his supporters joined apprehensive youths still protesting in the capital despite widening intimidation campaigns.

Young demonstrators have thronged Baghdad and the Shiite-majority south since October, accusing the entrenched political elite of corruption and incompetence.

Last week, they brought down embattled prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who resigned after top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani intervened following a crackdown on protesters that has left around 430 people dead.

This Friday, Sistani said the Shiite religious leadership, or “marjaiyah,” was not involved in talks on a new PM.

“The marjaiyah is not party to any discussions on this and has no role in any way whatsoever,” he said, in a sermon read by his representative in the shrine city of Karbala.

He did, however, urge that a new premier be selected within the 15-day window outlined in the constitution and with no “foreign interference.” Separately, two rockets hit the Al Balad air base, hosting US troops, north of Baghdad, late Thursday, Iraqi security forces said.

The attack with Katyusha rockets did not cause any casualties or material damage but “came close,” a US official said.

“There is a spike in rocket attacks,” a second US official said, adding that although they had caused no US casualties and little damage, they were increasingly worrying.

Iraq’s main political blocs have been debating candidates for the premiership but have yet to name anyone.

Two key foreign officials have attended the talks, according to a senior political source − Iran’s pointman for Iraq Major General Qasem Soleimani and Mohammad Kawtharany, a leading power-broker from Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement.

On Thursday, demonstrators were rattled by the sudden arrival of several thousand Hashed Al Shaabi supporters in Baghdad’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the epicentre of the protests.

In an apparent show of force, the newcomers waved sticks, national flags and the Hashed’s emblem − a symbol shunned by the vast majority of protesters.

Demonstrators have expressed doubts about the Hashed’s support, saying Thursday’s display was an attempt to “ruin” their non-partisan rallies.

Apprehensive about a repetition on Friday, protesters erected new checkpoints around the square overnight and searched rucksacks of young demonstrators seeking to join.

There were more newcomers on Friday, this time hundreds of clerics and officials from Shiite shrines in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf and other cities.

With robed clerics in white turbans at their head, their procession circled through Tahrir, carrying signs reading, “The marjaiyah is our support!” “The sheikhs and clerics from Karbala took part in these protests, as well as convoys from the religious shrines,” said Fadel Oz, an official from the revered Karbala shrine.

“This is in support of our brothers protesting in Tahrir.” One protester said their presence made it less likely the rallies would devolve into clashes.

“The religious shrines’ involvement grants legitimacy and numbers to the protests,” said Thaer Istayfi, 41.

Many in Tahrir keep their faces covered, saying they have been filmed or photographed by individuals that they suspect are “not real protesters.” And on Friday, the relatives of Zeid Al Khafaji, a photographer who had become well-known in the square, said he too had been kidnapped.

They said the 22-year-old had been snatched from outside his home by unidentified men in SUVs as he was returning from Tahrir.

Amnesty International said the reports of his abduction were “alarming.” “Local authorities have denied knowledge of the incident or his whereabouts. That is not good enough!” it said.

Iran in particular wields tremendous sway among Iraqi political and military figures, especially the Hashed Al Shaabi paramilitary force.

But protesters on the streets have publicly rejected what they say is Iran’s overreach and have vented their anger against its diplomatic missions.

Agence France-Presse

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