Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 July 2020

Iraq's top Shiite cleric condemns killings and kidnappings of protesters

With hundreds already killed, protest movement is seeing increased abductions of activists

Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, on Friday condemned recent killing and kidnapping of protesters, urging the state to assert control over the widespread use of weapons.

Mr Al Sistani also called on the armed forces to remain professional, loyal to the state and free from foreign influence, in a sermon delivered in the southern city of Karbala by his representative.

More than 440 people have been killed since the anti-government protests began on October 1, according to unofficial tallies based on reports from police and medical sources.

The protesters have repeatedly criticised Iran's influence in the country's politics and the role of Tehran-backed Iraqi militias.

Demonstrators from the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriyah march with pictures of people killed during anti-government protests. Reuters
Demonstrators from the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriyah march with pictures of people killed during anti-government protests. Reuters

Mr Al Sistani also denounced the killing of a teenager whose body was strung up by the feet from a traffic light in a Baghdad square.

Security officials initially said that the youth was killed by a mob after he shot four protesters and two shopkeepers.

Representatives for the ministries of interior and health only said on Friday that the teenager had been killed while Interior Ministry spokesman Brig Khaled Al Muhanna said an investigation was under way.

Mr Al Sistani called the teenager’s killing a “horrific crime” that must not be repeated and called on Iraqi authorities to hold the perpetrators accountable.

Dozens recorded the moment when the boy was strung up while some footage circulating on social media showed him being beaten and dragged along the street.

However, other videos showed security forces with their guns drawn surrounding a house where the youth had taken cover, raising the possibility he may have been killed by police.

Protesters were quick to distance themselves from Thursday’s violence. They condemned the incident and said those who carried it out were not part of their movement.

The teenager's death comes amid a string of killings by unknown groups that has put protesters on edge and eroded their faith in the ability of security forces to protect them.

Last Friday, 25 protesters were killed when gunmen in pickup trucks opened fire indiscriminately in Khilani Square in Baghdad. That same week, unknown men carried out a spate of knife attacks in Tahrir Square, the hub of the protest movement.

Referring to the incident in Khilani Square, Mr Al Sistani said the attacks reinforced previous calls by the Shiite religious establishment that “all weapons must be in the hands of the state.

The abductions and killings of high-profile civil activists in recent days have stoked the fears of demonstrators.

Most protesters blame Iran-backed militias for the attacks and regard the violence as a campaign to instil fear and weaken their movement.

The UN urged Iraqi authorities to hold those responsible to account for the murders and abductions of activists and protesters.

"Groups referred to as 'militia', 'unknown third parties', 'armed entities', 'outlaws' and 'spoilers' are responsible for the deliberate killings and abductions of demonstrators," said a UN report released on Wednesday.

The report said “credible information” indicated that activists and journalists were being targeted for arrest by Iraqi security forces and “groups described as militias”.

At least five high-profile activists recently went missing, the report said.

On Tuesday, the body of activist Ali Al Lami, 49, was found with gunshot wounds to the head.

Forensic experts said Al Lami, a father of five, had been shot three times.

His friends said he had arrived in Baghdad just days before to join the protests.

A police source said the attackers had used silencers.

"It was the militias of a corrupt government that killed him," his close friend, Tayssir Al Atabi, said.

Despite the killings and threats from officials, Iraqis have continued to protest in the capital and the south to demand the fall of a ruling political class they accused of widespread corruption and failing to deliver basic public services.

Mr Al Sistani, who rarely weighs in on politics except in times of crisis, holds massive influence over public opinion in Shiite-majority Iraq.

He has largely sided with anti-government protesters by calling on political parties to carry out serious reforms. He also withdrew support for the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi.

Mr Abdul Mahdi submitted his resignation last month after Mr Al Sistani asked parliament to reconsider its support for his government.

Updated: December 14, 2019 10:36 PM

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