Iraqi demonstrators pose for the camera during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq November 1, 2019. (Photo: Reuters)
Iraq's top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has warned foreign actors against interfering in anti-government protests that erupted early last month in Iraq and urged political factions to avoid "infighting."
"No person or group, no side with a particular view, no regional or international actor may seize the will of the Iraqi people and impose its will on them," Al-Sistani said in his weekly sermon, read by his representative Ahmed Al-Safi, on Friday.
Al-Sistani's comments, which can usually make or break a government decision in Iraq, came a day after comments by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq.
"I seize this opportunity to tell those who care about Iraq and Lebanon to remedy insecurity as their priority," Khamenei said, without elaborating.
Protests in Iraq, which have entered their second month, pose a challenge to Iran, which closely backs Baghdad's government.
An increasingly violent crackdown by security forces loyal to Tehran against peaceful protesters has raised fears of a backlash by Iran and its allies.
Videos circulated online of a group of protesters smacking their shoes against a poster showing Khamenei and the head of Iran's elite Quds force, General Qassim Soleimani, with their faces crossed out. The video appeared to have been taken in Tahrir Square on Thursday.
Many protesters have directed their rage at Iran, which has close ties with powerful political parties and state-backed militias.
Iraq has held regular elections since then, but they have been dominated by sectarian political parties, many of which are close to Iran.
On the biggest day of mass anti-government demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein, thousands of Iraqis thronged central Baghdad on Friday demanding the downfall of the political elite. Violent incidents on that day left over 250 dead and 10,000 wounded.
The protests have erupted across Baghdad and mostly-Shiite southern Iraq, and have been directed against the Shia-led government.
The demonstrations are fuelled by anger at widespread corruption, high unemployment and poor public services.
The protesters have called for the resignation of the government and sweeping changes to the political system established after the 2003 US-led invasion.
One in five Iraqis live below the poverty line and youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, despite the vast oil wealth of the second-largest crude producer in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
That inequality has been a rallying cry for the protests, unfazed by the government's proposals of hiring drives and increased social welfare plans.
Iraqi President Barham Saleh vowed to hold early elections once a new voting law and electoral commission have been agreed.
He also said embattled Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi was ready to step down once another candidate was found.
Abdel-Mahdi, 77, came to power a year ago through a tenuous partnership between populist cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and paramilitary leader Hadi Al-Ameri, who has close ties with Tehran.
The kingmakers' alliance has frayed in recent months, as Al-Sadr threw his weight behind the protests while Al-Ameri and his allies backed the government.
Reuters reported this week that Soleimani, which sponsors Tehran's allies abroad, flew to Baghdad for a secret meeting at which a powerful Shia party agreed to keep the prime minister in office.
Iraqi security officials said snipers who shot down from rooftops at crowds last month were deployed by Iran-backed militias.
It is too early to say what would be the end. The US, Tehran's main rival, has so far kept mostly quiet on the protests, probably waiting to see the outcome. Also, the Arab Sunni states have not taken sides in the Iraq struggles, until now.
All forces will have to contend with the choice of the Iraqis who will most likely have a say in their future.