Baghdad: Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric urged security forces on Friday to avoid using excessive force to quell weeks of anti-government unrest as authorities grapple with the country's biggest crisis in years.
Protests over a lack of jobs and services broke out in Baghdad on October 1 and quickly spread to southern provinces. Security forces began using live gunfire to disperse demonstrations almost immediately, and have killed more than 260 people, according to police and medics.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who only speaks on politics in times of crisis and wields enormous influence over public opinion in Iraq, held security forces accountable for any violent escalation and urged the government to respond as quickly as possible to demonstrators' demands.
"The biggest responsibility is on the security forces," a representative of Sistani said in a sermon after Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala. "They must avoid using excessive force with peaceful protesters."
The protesters, mostly unemployed youths, now demand an overhaul of the political system and a corrupt ruling class which has dominated state institutions since the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The violent response from authorities has fuelled public anger. Snipers from Iran-backed militias that have participated in the crackdown were deployed last month, Reuters reported.
Live fire is still being used and even tear gas canisters, fired directly at protesters' bodies instead of being lobbed into crowds, have killed at least 16 people, New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Friday.
Doctors at hospitals have shown Reuters scans of tear gas canisters embedded in the skulls of dead protesters.
Sistani also warned against the exploitation of the unrest by "internal and external" forces which he said sought to destabilise Iraq for their own goals. He did not elaborate.
He said those in power must come up with a meaningful response to the demonstrations.
Handouts for the poor, promises to try corrupt officials and creation of more job opportunities for graduates have failed to placate protesters, whose demands include a new electoral system and the removal of all current political leaders.
The protesters have also rejected foreign interference in Iraq, which has long been caught between its two main allies and bitter rivals the United States and Iran.
Public anger has been directed particularly towards Iran, which supports the parties and paramilitary groups that dominate the Baghdad government and state institutions.