As the second wave of Iraq protests entered its fourth week on Friday, November 15, demonstrators got a strong boost from the country's highest Shiite religious authority, which will embolden them to hold their ground as long as their demands for all-out reforms and regime change are not met.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's support was announced in his weekly sermon just concurrent with popular outbursts in several cities in neigboring Iran over gasoline price hikes.
The protests in both countries dominated by Shiite Moslems have many things in common; among which anger at corruption officials tops the list.
The one major difference is the absence of an independent authoritative figurehead in Iran, while in Iraq Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani is considered by most Shiites to be a higher authority than any political leader.
The initial wave of Iraq protests which erupted on October 1 called for social reforms, improvement of basic services, particularly electricity, as well as fighting rampant corruption and unemployment. But they were met with violent a crackdown which in the span of less than a week left at least 104 people killed and 6,107 injured among both demonstrators and security forces, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry spokesman. And by November 10, the casualty figure reportedly rose to more than 319 people killed and 15,000 wounded, according to Iraq's Human Rights Commission.
Most young protesters who took to the streets in the capital Baghdad and other center-south cities ranged in age from 16 to 30. Being members of the so-called "millennial generation", most of them grew up under the current political system which assumed power after the US-led invasion in 2003 and thus had little or no first-hand recollections of Saddam Hussein regime's brutal policies. And they have raised the ceiling of demands in the current wave of protests to include government’s resignation and regime change.
Al-Sistani said on November 15 in a statement published on his official website and read by his representative during Friday prayers in the city of Karbala
that he, firstly, clarifies his position of "supporting the protests and ensuring that they are peaceful and free from any form of violence."
The second point underscores the importance of expediting "the adoption of a fair electoral law that restores citizens' confidence in the electoral process and does not give an unfair advantage to current political parties but gives a real opportunity to change the forces that have ruled the country over the past years..."
The statement notes, thirdly, that the protesters' demands have not been fulfilled to date particularly along the lines of "prosecuting the corrupt and recovering the money looted by them, abolishing the unfair privileges granted to certain groups at the expense of the rest of the people, and avoiding quotas and patronage." Thus, "suspicions are raised about the ability or seriousness of the ruling political forces to implement the demands of the demonstrators even at minimum levels."
In the fourth point of the statement, al-Sistani says, "if those in power think that they can evade the benefits of real reform by stalling and procrastination, they are delusional." He adds, "What comes after these protests will not be the same as before, and they should be aware of that."
Finally, the statement says that "the battle for reform" being waged by the Iraqi people is a national battle and "no outside party should be allowed to interfere in it at any direction."
Al-Sistani’s clear message to both sides strengthened the hand of the protesters, although they face daily use of force by security forces.
The highest religious authority's latest statement was announced and published four days after his meeting with the UN Special Representative to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the holy city of Najaf.
The Associated Press reported on November 11 that al-Sistani
welcomed the proposals put forth by the UN in a bid to end the unrest, according to a statement from his office. But he said he was concerned that political parties "do not have sufficient seriousness to implement any true reform." If they do not, he added, a "new approach" was needed.
He was also quoted as saying "the situation cannot continue in the same way it has before the protests," without elaborating.
Meanwhile, fast-moving developments in Iran led to the closure by Iraq of its southern Shalamcheh border crossing with the neighboring country.
Reuters quoted an Iraqi security source and an Iranian diplomat that Iraq closed the border crossing to travelers from both countries on Saturday (November 16).
The security source said Tehran had demanded the closure "because of ongoing public protests in both Iran and Iraq."