Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Four killed in protests as Ali Al Sistani backs Iraqi protesters' calls for new election law

Procrastination cannot deflect demands for real change, Shiite cleric warns politicians

Three people have died after Iraqi security forces fired live ammunition and rounds of heavy tear gas in renewed clashes with anti-government protesters in central Baghdad on Friday.

At least one other person was killed and more than a dozen wounded when a bomb placed under a vehicle was detonated on Friday evening.

It comes after Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric on Friday called on the government to enact a new election law, in his most outspoken support for protesters who have taken to the streets in Baghdad and southern Iraq for more than a month.

The law would restore public confidence in the system and give voters the opportunity to bring “new faces” to power, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani said in his weekly sermon.

None of the protesters demands had been met so far and the electoral reform should be a priority, he said.

The cleric also castigated the government for the "killing and kidnapping" of protesters.

His comments came as large protests took place on Friday in response to the death of a protester on Thursday in clashes which left more than 40 wounded. On Friday three more people were killed and a further 25 people injured.

The confrontations in Khilani Square began on Friday afternoon after hundreds of protesters who breached the concrete barriers streamed into the square, where they were met by soldiers and riot police.

At least 320 people have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on October 1 following tough measures by Iraqi security forces to calm down on protests.

The protests were triggered by widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services despite the Iraq’s oil wealth, but the protesters are now also demanding an end to sectarian politics and the end of US and Iranian influence in the country.

The latest clashes broke out late Thursday in Baghdad’s Khilani Square, according to Iraqi medical and security officials.

The violence erupted hours after demonstrators celebrated Iraq’s 2-1 World Cup qualifier win over Iran.

Demonstrations in Baghdad have mostly taken place in Tahrir and Khilani squares and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces.

Mr Al Sistani, whose opinion holds major sway over Iraqis, said a fair electoral law should give voters the ability to replace current political leaders with “new faces”.

“Passing a law that does not give such an opportunity to voters would be unacceptable and useless,” he said.

“If those in power think they can evade dealing with real reform by procrastination, they are mistaken. What comes after the protests is not the same as before, so be careful,” he warned.

He said corruption among the ruling elite had reached “unbearable limits”.

Large sections of the population find it increasingly impossible to meet their basic needs while leaders “share the country’s wealth among themselves and disregard each other’s corruption”, the cleric said.

“People did not go out to demonstrations calling for reform in this unprecedented way, and do not continue to do so despite the heavy price and grave sacrifices it requires, except because they found no other way to revolt against the corruption which is getting worse day after day, and the rampant deterioration on all fronts,” he said.

On Monday, Mr Al Sistani said he backed a road map by the UN mission in Iraq aimed at meeting the demands of the protesters, but expressed concern that political parties were not serious about carrying out the proposed reforms.

Protesters in Tahrir Square said they were heartened by the cleric’s sermon, welcoming much-needed support after weeks of violence.

“He [Sistani] confirmed that legitimacy comes from the people and the people are the first owners of legitimacy. Our government lost its legitimacy according to the people, and the Sayed confirmed this,” said Amir Najem, 29, referring to Mr Al Sistani by a title of respect. "If legitimacy comes from the people, the Sayed is with us. And the biggest statement to come out was this speech during the Friday prayer.”

But some felt that the cleric could be even stronger in his support.

“There are people waiting for support and a fatwa ... but these were just beautiful words for the supporters of Sayed Al Sistani,” said Marwan, 32, who did not want to give his full name.

The sermon followed a symbolic victory for the demonstrators when the Iraqi football team beat Iran 2-1 in a World Cup qualifying match on Thursday night that was shown on a giant screen in Tahrir Square. One of the most common demands at demonstrations is the removal of Iran’s influence over Iraq, and protesters believe Iran-aligned forces to be behind some of the worst violence against them.

Crowds at the square had thinned in previous days in the face of a campaign of arrests, kidnappings and threats, but Iraq’s win injected fresh enthusiasm among the protesters.

“I feel so happy,” said Murqtada Diyana, 19, a tuk-tuk driver who lounged on top of his vehicle smoking shisha as he watched the game.

“We beat them at the game and we’ll beat them here. We’re joyful and celebrating and we will all stay here. We have [shisha], we have food, the people are here and we will not go back until we get our rights.”

Updated: November 16, 2019 01:27 AM

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