NAJAF: The United Nations’ top official in Iraq and the country’s most senior cleric urged authorities on Monday to get “serious” about reforms after anti-government demonstrations that have left hundreds dead.
Mass rallies calling for an overhaul of the ruling system have rocked the capital Baghdad and the south since October 1 — the largest and deadliest popular movement in Iraq in decades.
The bloody unrest has sparked serious concern from the UN, human rights groups and the White House, which on Sunday called on Baghdad “to halt the violence against protesters” and pass electoral reform.
After weeks of paralysis, Iraq’s top leaders seem to have agreed to keep the system intact, but the UN in Iraq (UNAMI) urged them to enact a host of changes.
These include electoral reforms within two weeks, the prosecution of those responsible for the recent violence as well as of corrupt officials, and the passing of anti-graft laws.
On Monday, UNAMI chief Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert met the country’s highest authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in the holy city of Najaf.
She said the seat of religious power in Iraq, known as the marjaiyah, had stressed that “peaceful demonstrators cannot go home without sufficient reforms” to answer their demands.
“The marjaiyah expressed its concerns that the political forces are not serious enough to carry out such reforms,” said Hennis-Plasschaert.
“If the three authorities — executive, judiciary and legislative — are not able or willing to conduct these reforms decisively, there must be a way to think of a different approach,” she warned without elaborating.
There was no statement attributable directly to Sistani, who is 89 and never appears in public.
In his recent sermons, delivered by a representative, Sistani has described the protesters’ demands as “legitimate” and called for the rallies to be handled with “restraint”.
In recent days, more than a dozen protesters have been killed as security forces have cracked down on demonstrators.
They have cleared streets and squares in Baghdad, in the port hub of Basra and the southern city of Nasiriyah, where four protesters were shot dead on Sunday.
Security forces there even chased down demonstrators into a children’s hospital and fired tear gas inside.
On Monday, protesters struggled to come out in large numbers there and security forces reopened roads in Basra, stifling attempts to stage sit-ins near the provincial headquarters.
In Baghdad, live rounds rang out in neighbourhoods close to the main protest camp of Tahrir (Liberation) Square.
But thousands of demonstrators took to the streets again in Hillah, Diwaniyah and Kut.