Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric said a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence, as armed men killed 19 people, including three police, near a Baghdad protest.
More than 70 others were wounded by gunfire and stabbings near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said.
It was the most violent flare-up in the capital for weeks and came a week after Iraqi’s Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.
Security sources could not identify the gunmen who attacked protesters.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments followed reports a senior Iranian commander was in Baghdad to rally support for a new government to serve Shi’ite Iran’s interests.
Sistani 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, who Tehran fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests increasingly focusing anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.
Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, has long opposed foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy involved in running state institutions.
He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds 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, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in Kerbala.
“It must take place without foreign interference,” he said, adding Sistani would not get involved in choosing a new government.
The burning of Iran’s consulate in the holy city Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shi’ite clergy, and subsequent killings of protesters by security forces in southern cities paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.
Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces killed more than 400 demonstrators.
More than a dozen members of the security forces died in the clashes.
Washington on Friday imposed sanctions on three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders it accused of directing the killing of Iraqi protesters. A senior US Treasury official suggested the sanctions were timed to distance them from any role in forming a new government.
Iraq’s two main allies, the United States and Iran, acted as power brokers in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Tehran’s allies have dominated state institutions since.
Iranian officials including the commander of its Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, stepped in to prevent Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in October, Reuters reported.
A senior State Department official lambasted his involvement in establishing the next Iraqi government. “Seems to us foreign terrorist leaders, military leaders, should not be meeting with Iraqi political leaders to determine the next premier of Iraq,” David Schenker, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at State Department, told a briefing.
Abdul Mahdi and his government will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government is chosen, the prime minister said.
President Barham Salih officially has until December 16 -to name a new premier tasked with forming a government approved by parliament a month later.
Iraqi lawmakers say they will then hold a general election next year. Protesters say without a new, fully representative electoral law and unbiased electoral commission, a snap vote will keep corrupt politicians in power.