Armed men have killed at least 19 people near a Baghdad protest site, prompting Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric to call for a new prime minister to be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence.
More than 70 others were wounded by gunfire and stabbings near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital on Friday, police and medics say.
It was the most violent flare-up in the capital for weeks and came a week after Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.
Security sources said they could not identify the gunmen who attacked protesters. At least three of those killed were police.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments followed reports a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shi’ite Iran’s interests.
Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.
The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling.
Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.
He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.
“We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of 15 days since the resignation was formalised in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said.
“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the process of choosing a new government.
The burning of Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shi’ite clergy, and subsequent killings of protesters by security forces paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.
Abdul Mahdi pledged to quit last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.
More than a dozen members of the security forces have been killed in the clashes.