Iraq’s top Shia Muslim cleric on Friday condemned attacks on protesters and urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government, an apparent suggestion they’re seeking a change of leadership as violence spirals in the war-weary country.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani made his remarks after the bloodiest day in weeks of anti-government unrest. Security forces have shot dead hundreds of protesters and clashes have begun to escalate in southern provinces.
The government “appears to have been unable to deal with the events of the past two months…. Parliament, from which the current government emerged, must reconsider its choices and do what’s in the interest of Iraq,” a representative of Sistani said in a televised sermon.
Sistani said attacks on peaceful protesters were “forbidden,” but also urged demonstrators to reject violence, two days after protesters burned down the Iranian Consulate in the southern holy city of Najaf.
Death toll tops 400
Protesters “must not allow peaceful demonstrations to be turned into attacks on property or people,” he said.
The burning of the Iranian Consulate in Najaf on Wednesday sparked an escalation of violence.
On Thursday, security forces shot dead 46 people in another southern city, Nassiriya, 12 in Najaf and four in Baghdad bringing the death toll from weeks of unrest to at least 408, most of them unarmed protesters, according to a Reuters tally from medical and police sources.
Clashes between protesters and security forces broke out early on Friday in Nassiriya, wounding several people, hospital sources said.
Iraq’s “enemies and their apparatuses are trying to sow chaos and infighting to return the country to the age of dictatorship…. Everyone must work together to thwart that opportunity,” Sistani said, without elaborating.
The unrest is Iraq’s biggest crisis for years.
Protesters demand the departure of a Shia-dominated ruling elite backed by Iran that has held power since the U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.