BAGHDAD: Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, urged Iraq’s political parties on Friday to form a new government as soon as possible, and urged authorities to respect protesters’ right to express themselves.
Al-Sistani, who delivered his message through a representative at Friday prayer in Karbala, reiterated calls to foreign powers to respect Iraq’s sovereignty.
“The formation of the new government is constitutionally long overdue, it is necessary for the various parties concerned to cooperate,” Al-Sistani said.
He admonished authorities for “procrastinating” on reform promises and parties for being “very late” in naming a successor to Premier Adel Abdul Mahdi, who has acted as caretaker since resigning in December.
Two anti-government protesters were killed in clashes with security forces in Baghdad, hours after thousands of supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr rallied separately to demand the ouster of US troops.
A vowed enemy of US troops, Al-Sadr had called for “a million-strong” rally but did not attend himself. “Get out, get out, occupier!” they chanted.
A statement read by his representative at the rally demanded all foreign forces leave Iraq, Iraqi-American security agreements be cancelled, Iraqi airspace be closed to US military aircraft and for President Donald Trump not to act “arrogant” when addressing Iraqi officials.
“If all this is implemented, we will deal with it as a non-occupying country — otherwise it will be considered a country hostile to Iraq,” the statement read.
Four NGO workers, three of them French nationals, were also reported missing in Baghdad, rocked since October by a youth-dominated protest movement demanding a government overhaul, early elections and more accountability.
The NGO’s director described the men as “experienced staff members who have been working with us for years” and who had “perfect knowledge of conflict zones.”
More than 470 people have died in protest-related violence since October, most of them demonstrators, and violence has spiked this week.
The Pentagon said that 34 US troops were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries suffered in this month’s Iranian missile strike on an Iraqi air base, and that half of the troops have returned to their military duties.
Seventeen of the 34 are still under medical observation, according to Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman.
Trump had initially said he was told that no troops had been injured in the Jan. 8 strike. The military said symptoms were not immediately reported after the strike and in some cases became known days later.