191002 Iraq
A demonstrator prepares to throw a tear gas canister used by Iraqi security forces as others disperse during a protest over unemployment, corruption and poor public services, in Baghdad, Iraq October 2, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Baghdad: Iraq’s top Shiite 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 Shiite militias, widely blamed by the public for killing more than 100 protesters in a crackdown.

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The Iran-backed Iraqi militia, Hashed Al Shaabi, hold up a picture of Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. Image Credit: AFP

Al 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.

Al 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.

Worst violence since 2017

The violence, Iraq’s worst since a Daesh 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.

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An injured protester Image Credit: AP

Al 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 criticised 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.

Abdul Mahdi under pressure

Al Sistani’s Friday sermon heaps pressure on Abdul Mahdi, who was brought to power with the backing of Iran-aligned political and paramilitary groups.

Abdul Mahdi Image Credit: AP

He announced some reforms including changing ministerial posts, improving job opportunities and promising handouts for the poor.

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.