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article imageProtests-swept Iraq will never be the same: top cleric

By Ali Choukeir (AFP)     Nov 15, 2019 in World

Iraq will never be the same following the weeks of demonstrations in Baghdad and the country's south demanding sweeping reform, its top Shiite cleric said Friday in his most emphatic endorsement yet of the protest movement.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said authorities must respond quickly to the protests which have flooded the capital and cities across the mainly Shiite south in an outpouring of anger over rampant corruption and lack of jobs.

"If those in power think that they can evade the benefits of real reform by stalling and procrastination, they are delusional," Sistani said in his weekly sermon, delivered by a representative in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

"What comes after these protests will not be the same as before, and they should be aware of that."

Since they erupted on October 1, the demonstrations have escalated into demands for root-and-branch reform of the political system.

Sistani cautiously backed the protests when they began but has since firmed up his support, describing protests on Friday as "the honourable way" to seek change.

The 89-year-old cleric, who is based in the Shiite holy city of Najaf and never appears in public, remains hugely influential in the Shiite-majority south.

Emboldened after his sermon, thousands of protesters rallied in the southern hotspots of Kut, Hilla, Nasiriyah and Basra, AFP correspondents reported.

Near the capital's main protest camp in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, demonstrators decided to hold their ground after hearing the Shiite religious leadership, or "marjaiyah".

"No one retreat, even the marjaiyah is with us!" said one young man as security forces pelted them with tear gas canisters.

- UN, Sistani pile pressure -

In neighbouring Khallani Square, two protesters were shot dead on Friday afternoon, according to a medical sources, after one was killed overnight.

Iraqi protesters run from tear gas during clashes with security forces at Baghdad's Khallani Sq...
Iraqi protesters run from tear gas during clashes with security forces at Baghdad's Khallani Square

More than 330 people have died since the rallies erupted, making them the deadliest grassroots movement to hit Iraq in years.

They present the biggest threat so far to the political system ushered in by the US-led invasion which toppled the regime of longtime dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Protesters blame that system for rampant corruption, staggering unemployment rates and poor services in resource-rich Iraq, OPEC's second-biggest producer.

But the political establishment has rejected demands for the government to step down and instead closed rank.

That consensus was brokered by neighbouring Iran's pointman for Iraq, senior Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Qasem Soleimani.

Sistani denies being party to the Iranian-sponsored deal and has warned outside powers against "imposing" anything on Iraq.

Sistani  who never appears in public  received the United Nations' top official in Iraq  Jeanin...
Sistani, who never appears in public, received the United Nations' top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, to give support to her roadmap for reforms
Haidar HAMDANI, AFP/File

On Monday, he met the United Nations top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, to back her phased roadmap for tackling the crisis.

The plan calls for electoral reforms within two weeks followed by constitutional amendments and infrastructure legislation within three months.

- 'One of boldest moves yet' -

On Friday, Sistani urged lawmakers to "work quickly to pass a fair electoral law that would restore people's faith in the electoral process".

"Passing a law that does not provide this opportunity to voters would not be acceptable or useful," he said.

Parliament received a draft of a new electoral law this week but has yet to begin debating it.

A source with close ties to the Shiite religious leadership told AFP that Iranian delegates had tried to deliver a letter to Sistani asking him to back the government and tell protesters to leave the streets.

Sistani "refused to answer the letter or even receive them," but he did meet with Soleimani, the source said.

Iraqi security forces parade a portrait of Sistani as they patrol the Shiite holy city of Najaf wher...
Iraqi security forces parade a portrait of Sistani as they patrol the Shiite holy city of Najaf where he is based

"Qasem Soleimani heard some tough words from the marjaiyah about the Iranian role in the Iraqi crisis," he added.

The revered cleric is usually much less involved in politics, said Carnegie senior fellow Harith Hasan.

"That is why his latest words on the protests revealed how seriously he perceived the current situation in Iraq," Hasan said.

"By more clearly siding with the protesters, Sistani made one of his boldest moves yet, the outcome of which may determine the balance of power within the Shiite community and Iraqi politics for years to come."

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