The Iraqi government and security forces are “responsible for the bloodshed” during recent protests, top Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said on Friday.
In a sermon read out at the main weekly prayers, al-Sistani – the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia majority – gave authorities “two weeks” to release the findings of an investigation into the more than 100 deaths during the demonstrations since October 1.
Thousands of mostly young men headed waves of protests last week, which began in Baghdad before spreading to cities throughout Iraq’s south – rallying against corruption, unemployment, and poor public services.
Al-Sistani denounced the use of snipers to quell unrest and demanded that the Baghdad government find out who had given orders to shoot, whether they were state security personnel or “undisciplined elements”.
The ayatollah “demands that the government investigate to find out which elements gave orders to shoot protesters, whatever their affiliation”, a representative said during a sermon in the holy city of Karbala.
The intervention by al-Sistani, who rarely weighs in on politics except in times of crisis, will place new pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to curb the power of Iran-backed Shia militias, widely blamed by the public for killing the protesters.
The Shia leader also criticised attacks on journalists after unidentified armed men raided the offices of several TV stations and at least two reporters were snatched and briefly held by unidentified security personnel.
Worst violence since ISIL
The recent violence is being called Iraq’s worst since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group was put down in 2017.
In addition to those killed, more than 1,000 protesters were wounded and scores arrested, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Iraqi authorities on Thursday to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute members of the armed forces responsible for the deadly clampdown.
The mostly leaderless demonstrations came at a critical moment for Iraq, which has been caught in the middle of escalating tensions between the United States and Iran – both allies of the Iraqi government.