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November 16, 2019

Iraq will never be the same: Sistani


November 16, 2019

BAGHDAD: Iraq will never be the same following the weeks of demonstrations in Baghdad and the country’s south demanding sweeping reform, its top cleric said on Friday in his most emphatic endorsement yet of the protest movement.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said authorities must respond quickly to the protests which have flooded the capital and cities across the mainly south in an outpouring of anger over rampant corruption and lack of jobs.

"If those in power think that they can evade the benefits of real reform by stalling and procrastination, they are delusional," Sistani said in his weekly sermon, delivered by a representative in the holy city of Karbala.

"What comes after these protests will not be the same as before, and they should be aware of that." Since they erupted on October 1, the demonstrations have escalated into demands for root-and-branch reform of the political system.

Sistani cautiously backed the protests when they began but has since firmed up his support, describing protests on Friday as "the honourable way" to seek change. The 89-year-old cleric, who is based in the holy city of Najaf and never appears in public, remains hugely influential in the south of the country. Emboldened after his sermon, thousands of protesters rallied in the southern hotspots of Kut, Hilla, Nasiriyah and Basra, AFP correspondents reported.

Near the capital’s main protest camp in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, demonstrators decided to hold their ground after hearing the religious leadership, or "marjaiyah". "No one retreat, even the marjaiyah is with us!" said one young man as security forces pelted them with tear gas canisters.

In neighbouring Khallani Square, two protesters were shot dead on Friday afternoon, according to a medical sources, after one was killed overnight. More than 330 people have died since the rallies erupted, making them the deadliest grassroots movement to hit Iraq in years.

They present the biggest threat so far to the political system ushered in by the US-led invasion which toppled the regime of longtime dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. Protesters blame that system for rampant corruption, staggering unemployment rates and poor services in resource-rich Iraq, OPEC’s second-biggest producer.

But the political establishment has rejected demands for the government to step down and instead closed rank. That consensus was brokered by neighbouring Iran’s pointman for Iraq, senior Revolutionary Guards commander Major General Qasem Soleimani.

Sistani denies being party to the Iranian-sponsored deal and has warned outside powers against "imposing" anything on Iraq. On Monday, he met the United Nations top official in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, to back her phased roadmap for tackling the crisis.

The plan calls for electoral reforms within two weeks followed by constitutional amendments and infrastructure legislation within three months. On Friday, Sistani urged lawmakers to "work quickly to pass a fair electoral law that would restore people’s faith in the electoral process".

"Passing a law that does not provide this opportunity to voters would not be acceptable or useful," he said. Parliament received a draft of a new electoral law this week but has yet to begin debating it.

A source with close ties to the religious leadership told AFP that Iranian delegates had tried to deliver a letter to Sistani asking him to back the government and tell protesters to leave the streets.

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