Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric criticizes government over protester deaths

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric blamed the Baghdad government on Friday for the killing of scores of protesters, and gave it a two-week deadline to find out which “undisciplined elements” had used snipers to shoot them.

The intervention by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who rarely weighs in on politics except in times of crisis, will place new pressure on Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to curb the power of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, widely blamed by the public for killing more than 100 protesters in a crackdown.

Sistani “demands that the government investigate to find out which elements gave orders to shoot protesters, whatever their affiliation,” a representative of the cleric said during a sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

Sistani said the government was responsible for the deaths of protesters, who took to the streets last week to express anger over the lack of jobs, poor services and government corruption.

The violence, Iraq’s worst since an Islamic State insurgency was put down in 2017, has been Abdul Mahdi’s biggest test after a year in office. Snipers fired from rooftops at crowds of demonstrators during the crackdown. Reuters reporters saw protesters killed and wounded by shots to the head, neck and chest during some of the worst violence last week.

Sistani denounced the use of snipers to quell unrest and gave the government a two week deadline to find out who had given orders to shoot, whether they were state security personnel or “undisciplined elements”.

The cleric also criticized attacks on journalists, after unidentified gunmen raided the offices of several TV stations and at least two other reporters were snatched and briefly detained also by unidentified security personnel.

Sistani’s Friday sermon heaps pressure on Abdul Mahdi, who was brought to power with the backing of Iran-aligned political and paramilitary groups. He announced some reforms including changing ministerial posts, improving job opportunities and promising handouts for the poor.

Following Sistani’s speech, Abdul Mahdi’s office announced that nine senior officials were referred to the judiciary for corruption investigation, including two former ministers, two deputy ministers and four former provincial governors.

The premier also chaired an emergency meeting of his national security council, to discuss violence at the demonstrations. A committee was formed at the meeting, tasked with investigating the deaths and injuries of protesters and security forces.

The committee was given five days for its investigation starting Saturday and will be headed by the Joint Operations Command.

But the measures are unlikely to quell public anger at a corrupt political class which Iraqis say has failed to improve their lives even in peacetime, two years after Islamic State was declared defeated.

Reporting by John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; additional reporting Raya Jalabi in Erbil; Editing by Peter Graff and Alistair Bell