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Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric urges end to militancy after Diyala attacks

Iraqis carry a poster of top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani during a demonstration in Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad June 13, 2007. REUTERS/Ali Abu Shish/Files

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday urged the government to prevent militant attacks and condemned bombings claimed by Islamic State and retaliatory assaults this week on Sunni mosques in the province of Diyala.

Sistani has millions of followers in Iraq and elsewhere and wields authority that few Iraqi politicians would openly challenge.

“We place full responsibility on the government security forces for (the attacks’) repetition and to not permit the presence of militants outside the framework of the state,” his spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi Karbala’i, said in a sermon broadcast on state television.

At least seven Sunni mosques and dozens of shops in the town of Muqdadiya were firebombed on Tuesday, a day after 23 people were killed there in two blasts targeting Shi’ite militia fighters.

Iraqi officials declared victory over the insurgents in Diyala, which borders Iran, nearly a year ago after security forces and Shi’ite militias drove them out of towns and villages there. But the militants have remained active and militia elements have been accused of abuses against Sunni residents.

The rise of radical Sunni group Islamic State has exacerbated a long-running sectarian conflict in Iraq, mostly between the Shi’ite majority and minority Sunnis.

A surge in violence could undermine efforts by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shi’ite Islamist, to dislodge the group from areas in the north and west that they seized in 2014.

Abadi visited Muqdadiya on Thursday to meet with security and municipal officials.

Reporting by Stephen Kalin and Saif Hameed; Editing by Louise Ireland