BAGHDAD - Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday condemned the use of force to disperse protest camps across the country, as security forces stepped up a crackdown against demonstrators.
Protesters across Iraq are seeking the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling elite and an end to foreign interference in Iraqi politics, especially by Iran, which has come to dominate state institutions since dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in a 2003 US-led invasion.
Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest which began in October, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead. At least 11 have been killed since the protests resumed earlier this month.
Sistani, who delivered his message through a representative at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, also renewed calls for early elections to be held freely and fairly.
"It is imperative to hurry and hold an early election for the people to have their say, and for the next parliament to be formed from their free will, to take the necessary steps towards reform," he said.
He said that the next parliament would be able "to take decisive measures that will determine the future of the country, especially regarding the preservation of its sovereignty and the independence of its political decisions."
Separately, populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Friday called for a mass protest in the capital Baghdad and for sit-ins near the fortified Green Zone to protest the delayed formation of a government, without specifying when the gatherings should take place.
"I find that it is beneficial to renew the peaceful reformist revolution," Sadr said in a statement on Friday.
A famously fickle politician, Sadr backed the rallies when they first erupted in October and called on the government to resign - even though he controls the largest bloc in parliament and a number of key ministerial posts.
Sadr has a cult-like following in Iraq and his supporters were widely recognised as the best-organised and well-equipped demonstrators in Tahrir. His supporters have bolstered the protesters and sometimes helped shield them from attacks by security forces and unidentified gunmen.
But they withdrew from the main sit-in camps last week at Sadr's request. After holding a separate, anti-US rally, Sadr said he would no longer "interfere" in the civil campaign and his hard-core supporters dismantled their tents in protest camps across the country.
Iraq has been without a government since Dec. 1, when parliament accepted Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi's resignation after weeks of violent anti-government protests. He has, however, stayed on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is chosen.
Progress has been slowed by the absence of two power-brokers who were key to consensus in other rocky times: Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, both killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad on January 3.
Still, a politician close to the talks said a near-consensus had been formed around ex-minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, but some key parties were resisting his nomination. Protesters however have already rejected Allawi, hanging up his portrait with a large "X" over his face in the protest epicentre of Tahrir Square in Baghdad.
On Friday, protesters vetoed another candidate - Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa Kazemi - by giving his portrait the same treatment.
Tensions in Iraq boiled over after the US killed Soleimani in retaliation for attacks by Iran-backed groups against US interests in Iraq.
Iran responded with ballistic missile attacks on two Iraqi military bases housing US troops. At the time Baghdad condemned both the killing of Soleimani and Iran's missile attacks as acts of aggression on Iraq and a breach of its sovereignty.
Sistani on Friday also "strongly condemned" US President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan.
"The religious authority condemns strongly the oppressive plan that has been unveiled recently to legitimise the occupation of more Palestinian lands," Sistani said.