BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader called Friday for a road map out of the impasse, saying the country’s political class has a “unique opportunity” to meet the demands of protesters who have taken to the streets for weeks, demanding change — only to have their rallies met with a deadly crackdown.
In the latest violence, masked men attacked anti-government protesters in the southern city of Basra late on Thursday, killing five people, Iraqi state TV and medical officials said.
The shooting also wounded around 120, said medical officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Since the unrest erupted on Oct. 1, more than 250 people have been killed. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in the capital, Baghdad, and across the largely Shiite south to demand sweeping political change.
The demonstrators complain of widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, including regular power cuts despite Iraq’s vast oil reserves. They have snubbed limited economic reforms proposed by the government, calling for it to resign.
In his Friday sermon, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said it is the responsibility of the security forces to maintain the peacefulness of the protests and avoid using excessive force in dealing with the demonstrators.
Al-Sistani has always appealed on both sides to avoid violence. On Friday, he said most of the protesters have remained peaceful but that a violent minority should avoid confrontation with security forces and attacks on government buildings.
He also warned the protesters against being exploited by “internal and external forces” that had for decades had a role in harming Iraq. He didn’t elaborate.
In a call to quickly find a way out of the impasse, al-Sistani urged politicians to devise a roadmap that meets the protesters’ demands.
“The political powers … have a unique opportunity to respond to people’s demands, according to an agreed upon roadmap, that should be implemented in a specific period to put an end to a long period of corruption,” said Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalaie, al-Sistani’s representative. “It is no longer permissible to procrastinate on this issue because of the great risks facing the country.”
The protests pose the biggest challenge to the government since it declared victory over militants from the Islamic State group nearly two years ago. Driven by economic grievances, the demonstrations have also exposed long-simmering resentment at the country’s powerful Shiite political parties and militias with close ties to Iran.
Al-Sistani, in a nod to the militias that have played a key role in fighting IS, said no one should criticize those fighters in a way that undermines or ignore their sacrifices. “If peaceful protests and strikes are possible today away from the terrorists’ harm, it is thanks to those heroic men,” his representative said.
In Baghdad on Friday, Iraqi state television said explosives experts found a bomb under one of the city’s bridges and carried out a controlled explosion.
The Sinak bridge over the Tigris River has been a daily flashpoint between security forces and protesters trying to force their way into the heavily fortified Green Zone, where government headquarters are located. The report didn’t elaborate or say why the bomb was not removed from such a key location first, before the controlled explosion took place.
Also Friday, protester Amir Shami said security forces tore down tents at a protest sit-in in the holy city of Karbala.