Fresh clashes between Iraqi security forces and anti-government protesters broke out in Baghdad on Friday despite a call for calm by the country’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, as authorities grapple with the country’s biggest crisis in years.
Security forces fired tear gas and threw stun grenades into crowds of protesters wearing helmets and makeshift body armour on a main road in the middle of the Iraqi capital, sending demonstrators scattering, some wounded, Reuters reporters said.
More than 260 people have been killed since the protests over a lack of jobs and services began in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and quickly spread to southern provinces, according to police and medics.
Police, the military and paramilitary groups have used live gunfire against mostly unarmed protesters since the beginning of the unrest.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who only speaks on politics in times of crisis and wields enormous influence over public opinion in Shi’ite-majority Iraq, held security forces accountable for any violent escalation and urged the government to respond as quickly as possible to demonstrators’ demands.
“The biggest responsibility is on the security forces,” a representative of Sistani said in a sermon after Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala. “They must avoid using excessive force with peaceful protesters.”
Protesters, some of whom view Sistani as part of the political and religious system they say is the cause of many Iraqis’ misery, took little solace from the cleric’s words.