Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric demands end to violence as deadly protests rage



BASRA: Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite cleric called for a political shakeup in Baghdad and a halt to violence against demonstrators on Friday, after days of deadly protests tore through the main city in the south and shut the country’s main sea port.

Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the ultimate authority for most members of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, placed blame for the unrest with political leaders and said a new government should be formed, “different from its predecessors”.

At least 10 protesters have died since Monday in Basra, a city of 2 million people where residents who complain that infrastructure has collapsed — leaving them with no power or safe drinking water in the heat of summer — have torched government buildings and clashed with security forces.

On Thursday demonstrators escalated the unrest by shutting down Umm Qasr, the country’s main sea port, 60 km south of Basra, which handles the vast majority of imports into a country dependent on food bought abroad to feed its 37 million citizens.

It remained shut on Friday, local officials and security sources said. Iraq’s oil exports, which are carried out from offshore platforms, were unaffected.

Inside Basra, protesters stormed several provincial government buildings, torched the headquarters of the local government and blocked main roads in the city center.