Iraqi security forces fire tear gas to disperse anti-government protesters in central Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

UN: Top Iraqi Shiite cleric backs reforms to resolve unrest

November 11, 2019 - 9:26 am

BAGHDAD (AP) — The United Nations top envoy to Iraq, seeking support for a roadmap to resolve massive anti-government protests, said Monday that the country's most powerful Shiite religious leader backs serious reforms but is concerned politicians will not carry them out.

At least 12 protesters were also wounded in fresh confrontations with security forces in and around Khilani Square, in Baghdad. Most were hit directly with tear gas canisters, according to security and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. Four others were killed over night in clashes in a southern city.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the U.N. Special Representative to Iraq, met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the Shiite holy city of Najaf to discuss the series of reforms put forward by the U.N. a day earlier.

"The marjaiyah made it clear that it supports the conduct of serious reforms in a reasonable period of time," she said, using the Arabic name for al-Sistani's authority. "Within that context, it welcomes the proposals of the United Nations, including the proposal for one consolidated electoral framework."

"The marjaiyah also expresses its concerns that the political forces are not serious enough to carry out these reforms," she added.

Hennis-Plasschaert said Sistani, who did not issue a separate statement, insisted there should be "zero" use of violence against peaceful protesters and that perpetrators "should be held to account without delay."

In recent sermons, Sistani has said security forces had a responsibility to show restraint with peaceful protesters.

On Sunday, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq laid out a series of short- and long-term measures aimed at tackling protester demands, including electoral reform and anti-corruption initiatives.

More immediate measures included the release of peaceful demonstrators detained since early October, an investigation into cases of abduction and punishing those found guilty of using excessive force against protesters.

Hennis-Plasschaert said the U.N. would monitor the government's progress to ensure measures were being "done promptly, swiftly and decisively because this country needs to move forward."

Qais al-Khazali, a powerful Iran-backed militia leader, said U.S. support for early elections, "revealed the extent of U.S. intervention in Iraq affairs," in a statement posted on social media.

The White House issued a statement Sunday expressing backing for previous calls by Iraqi President Barham Saleh to reform the electoral system and hold early elections.

Khazali, head of the Asaib al-Haq group, said the statement showed the idea of early elections was "primarily a U.S. project intended to be revived even though the religious authority previously rejected it."

Saleh said in late October that early elections would be held following the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who in turn said his stepping down was contingent on political parties finding a suitable alternative for the premiership.

The violence in Baghdad came after renewed clashes between demonstrators and security forces overnight in the southern city of Nasiriyah, killing four protesters and some 130 wounded, a rights group said.

The casualties in Nasiriyah occurred during confrontations outside the education directorate as security forces tear-gassed protesters trying to block employees from reaching the building in the city center.

The semi-official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, which reported the toll, called the violence "regrettable" and added that some of the wounded are in serious conditions.

The group also said at least 34 demonstrators were arbitrarily arrested from neighborhoods in Nasiriyah.

At least 320 protesters have been killed by security forces since the protests and unrest over living conditions began last month.

The demonstrators complain of widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, including regular power cuts, despite Iraq's vast oil reserves.

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