KARBALA, BAGHDAD: Iraq’s top Shiite cleric on Friday condemned recent deadly attacks on anti-government demonstrators, chastising security forces for not doing more to prevent violence in protest squares across the country.
Eight demonstrators were killed this week in attacks on protest camps by supporters of populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, including in Najaf — home to Iraq’s Shiite religious leadership.
In his weekly sermon delivered by a representative, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani condemned the bloodshed as “painful and unfortunate” and said state security forces are “indispensable” to keeping the country from “falling into the abyss of chaos.”
“There is no justification for them to stop fulfilling their duties in this regard, or for anyone to stop them from doing so,” Sistani said.
“They must bear responsibility for maintaining security and stability, protecting peaceful protesters and their gathering places, revealing the identities of aggressors and infiltrators, and protecting the interests of citizens from the attacks of saboteurs.”
Sistani’s sermon appeared to have buoyed the demonstrators in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. “I was watching, afraid that he would be too general and it would allow for more suppression of the protests,” said one activist who gave his name only as Ali.
“But he was able to deliver a message: He accepts only the official security forces, no ‘blue caps’ or anyone else.”
In Diwaniyah further south, demonstrator Mohammad Al-Bulani said the sermon showed Sistani’s support for the protest movement. “He is the only one that has stood with our demands and defended us,” he said.
Nearly 550 Iraqis have been killed in protest-related violence since demonstrations erupted in the capital and southern cities in October, the Iraqi Human Rights Commission said.
Iraq’s Health Ministry confirmed the first protester shot dead on Oct. 1 but clammed up thereafter. The commission has since repeatedly complained that authorities declined its requests for information on deaths, injuries and arrests.
The commission, which is government-funded but operates independently, became the only source for death tolls until it too faced pressure last year to stop reporting.
It has resumed its public reporting and on Friday shared its latest statistics with the media, showing that 543 people have been killed since October, including 276 in Baghdad alone.
Seventeen members of the security forces are among the dead nationwide. The remaining are all protesters or activists, including 22 who were assassinated.
Up to 30,000 more have been wounded during the rallies, according to medical sources.