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Shiite Cleric Sadr Sides With Iraq Protesters, Calls For Government To resign

Mourners carry the Iraqi flag-draped coffin of a protester killed amid clashes during his funeral in the Najaf, October 4, 2019

One of Iraq's most influential Shiite clerics on Friday demanded from the government to resign as the death toll rose to 65 in three days of violent national protests against corruption among officials.

Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist political leader who has a huge following on the Iraqi street, said new elections should be held soon.

"Respect the blood of Iraq through the resignation of the government and prepare for early elections overseen by international monitors," a statement from his office said.

Protesters ignored Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi call for restraint and his promises of political reform. Sadr's intervention appeared likely to encourage them to continue their uprising until the government backs down.

On the streets of Baghdad, police appeared to be targeting individual protesters. Reuters reporters saw one fall to the ground after being shot in the head. He was pronounced dead in hospital.

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seen in the poster, celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, early Monday, May 14, 2018
Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seen in the poster, celebrate in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, Iraq, early Monday, May 14, 2018

Elsewhere, a Reuters television crew saw a man critically wounded by a gunshot to the neck after snipers on rooftops opened fire at a crowd. Sporadic shooting could be heard in Baghdad into the late evening.

This is similar to reports of snipers targeting individual protesters in 2009 in Iran's mass protests against the disputed re-election of the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Reports from elsewhere in Iraq were equally alarming. Police shot dead three people trying to storm the provincial government headquarters in the southern city of Diwaniya, police and medics said.

The protests arose in the south, heartland of the Shi'ite majority, but quickly spread, with no formal leadership.

As the toll increased to 65 dead and hundreds wounded, the most senior and influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani put the responsibility of the unrest on the government.

"It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction," al-Sistani, said in a letter read out by his representative during a sermon.

Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, undated
Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, undated

"The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground," said Sistani, who stays out of day-to-day politics but whose word is law for Iraq's Shi'ites. "Parliament holds the biggest responsibility for what is happening."

Sadr, who leads the largest opposition bloc in parliament, ordered his lawmakers to suspend participation in the legislature until the government introduces a program that would serve all Iraqis.

The speaker of Iraq's parliament called the protests a "revolution" against corruption but urged calm and proposed reforms such as better state housing support for poor people and ensuring Iraqi graduates are included on lucrative foreign projects for energy sector development.

Many government officials and lawmakers are widely accused of siphoning off public money, unfairly awarding contracts in state institutions and other forms of corruption.

In his overnight address, Abdul Mahdi pledged reforms but said there was no "magic solution" to Iraq's problems. He insisted politicians were aware of the suffering of the masses: "We do not live in ivory towers - we walk among you in the streets of Baghdad," he said.

A young man in a crowd fleeing sniper shots at a central Baghdad square was scornful. "The promises by Adel Abdul Mahdi are to fool the people, and today they are firing live gunshots at us," he said.

"Today this was a peaceful protest. They set up these barricades, and the sniper is sitting right there since last night."

Police and medical sources told Reuters the death toll so far included 18 people killed in the southern city of Nassiriya, 16 in Baghdad, four in the southern city of Amara and four in Baquba as unrest spread north of the capital. Deaths were also reported in the southern cities of Hilla and Najaf.

Curfews were imposed in a number of cities. Authorities shut roads into the capital from the north and northeast and were sending reinforcements to Baghdad's densely populated east. Military convoys were being sent to Nassiriya.

It is not clear what role if any pro-Iran Shiite militias are playing in trying to quell the unrest. Some have been integrated in the army since the fight against ISIS.

Abdul Mahdi said late on Friday that a curfew in Baghdad would be lifted from 5 a.m. local time on Saturday.

The protests could grow if they receive formal backing from Sadr, who has long denounced corruption and the political elite. Parliament was set to hold a session dedicated to finding a solution, but Sadr's faction was staying away.

Sadr has not called on his followers to join the protests, but his faction has expressed sympathy with their aims. One senior Sadrist politician, Awad Awadi, described the protests to Reuters as "a revolution of hunger".

Reporting by Reuters