Iraqi activists and anti-government protesters have welcomed the speech of top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in which he has condemned the security forces for failing to protect the protesters killed in clashes in the southern city of Najaf this week.
Iraq‘s anti-government protesters were looking for support from the country’s top religious leader after followers of populist Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr turned on protest sit-ins in the capital Baghdad and the southern holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
Iraq’s protest movement began in October to decry corruption, unemployment and the lack of basic services. At least 500 people have been killed and thousands of others injured in the months-long unrest.
But recent days have seen a new turn in events after Sadr’s Saray al-Salam militia, known as the “blue hats” because of the headgear they often wear, attacked anti-government protesters who rejected the nomination last week of Mohammed Allawi as the new prime minister-designate.
A representative of al-Sistani, who delivered the speech from Karbala on Friday, condemned the deadly violence that killed several protesters on Wednesday night in Najaf and injured more than 100 others after Sadr supporters clashed with protesters in Sadrayn Square.
On Thursday, witnesses said 10 people were also wounded in the central city of Karbala in clashes between anti-government protesters and al-Sadr’s supporters.
In his speech, al-Sistani called on security forces to protect anti-government demonstrators from any further attacks.
“It is the security forces that must take responsibility to keep the peace, protect the protest squares and the peaceful demonstrators and identify attackers and rabble-rousers,” he said. “There is no excuse for shirking that duty.”
He also called for early elections and urged the politicians to select a government acceptable to the public.
In Tahrir Square, the hub of the protest movement in Baghdad, protesters told Al Jazeera they were happy with al-Sistani’s speech.
“We are feeling positive in Tahrir Square after al-Sistani condemned what happened in Najaf and berated the security forces for not protecting us,” said Mohamed Abbas, a 20-year-old student from Baghdad.
Al-Sistani, who enjoys influence overs Iraq’ Shia majority, rarely comments on politics. But he is seen by the protesters as the final vestige of support within the establishment.
“Unlike Sadr and many of the political leaders in Iraq, Sistani has been consistent in his message and stance to support our demands for elections and a representative leader throughout,” added Abbas.
Al-Sadr had initially backed the protest movement, which began in early October in capital Baghdad and Iraq’s mostly Shia south. But he has since changed his position several times, withdrawing his support before Allawi’s appointment, which prompted some of his supporters to leave the protest camps.
He then called on his followers to return to the streets, only to later shift his stance again and urged them to “come together to reveal the saboteurs and the nationalist pretenders” by helping the security forces.
Observers have pinned the withdrawal of al-Sadr’s support for the protest movement as part of his agreement with the country’s largest parliamentary blocs, most of which are backed by Iran, to nominate Allawi for the prime minister’s position.
Ali Khraybit, a 27-year-old filmmaker and protester in Baghdad, said he “expected nothing less from al-Sistani’s speech”.
“After Sistani holding the security forces accountable, we are hopeful again,” Khraybit told Al Jazeera, adding that he expected the number of protesters in Tahrir Square, which had dwindled over the past week, to increase again.
“I hope the protest movement will now go back to being strong like it was before,” said Khraybit.
However, other protesters said they were “slightly disappointed” and had hoped for more from al-Sistani’s speech.
“Al-Sistani’s condemnation of the security forces was good, but he did not mention Allawi or say that he rejects him,” said Mariam Ali, a 27-year-old nurse in Tahrir Square.
“Allawi’s appointment last week was the reason behind the recent escalation,” she said.