Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric says government should not tolerate infringement of sovereignty

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the government on Friday to show “no tolerance” of any infringement of the country’s sovereignty, after Turkey deployed heavily armed troops to northern Iraq.

Sistani’s spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi Karbala’i, did not explicitly name Turkey, but a row over the deployment has badly soured relations between Ankara and Baghdad, which denies having agreed to it.

Sistani also said Iraq’s neighbours should not send any troops to Iraq “under the pretext of fighting terrorism”, except with the approval of the Baghdad government.

“The Iraqi government is responsible for protecting Iraq’s sovereignty and must not tolerate and side that infringes upon on it, whatever the justifications and necessities,” Karbalai’i said in a weekly sermon.

Ankara says the troops were sent as part of an international mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State. Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday a withdrawal was “out of the question for the moment”.

Sistani urged citizens to show restraint towards foreign residents of Iraq, after Shi’ite paramilitary groups threatened to use force against Turkey and target its interests to force it to pull out.

Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Hugh Lawson