Baghdad: Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric on Friday condemned attacks on protesters and urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government, an apparent suggestion they seek a change of leadership to stem spiralling violence in the war-weary country.
Security forces, meanwhile, shot dead at least three protesters in the southern city of Nassiriya, hospital sources said, bringing the death toll from weeks of violence to more than 400 people, mostly young, unarmed demonstrators.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani warned against an explosion of civil strife and tyranny, urging government forces to stop killing protesters and protesters themselves to reject all violence.
He gave his remarks after the bloodiest day in weeks of anti-government unrest.
After protesters burned down the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf on Wednesday, security forces shot 62 people dead nationwide on Thursday, with clashes escalating in southern provinces.
The unrest is Iraq's biggest crisis for years. It pits protesters from Shi'ite heartlands in Baghdad and the south against a corrupt Shi'ite-dominated ruling elite seen as pawns of Iran.
Iraq's current political class is drawn mainly from powerful Shi'ite politicians, clerics and paramilitary leaders including many who lived in exile before a US-led invasion overthrew Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Friday's remarks by Sistani, who weighs in on politics only in times of crisis but wields huge influence over public opinion, were his strongest suggestion yet that the current government should step aside.
The government "appears to have been unable to deal with the events of the past two months ... parliament, from which the current government emerged, must reconsider its choices and do what's in the interest of Iraq," a representative of Sistani said in a televised sermon.
Sistani said attacks on peaceful protesters were "forbidden" but also urged demonstrators to reject violence.
Protesters "must not allow peaceful demonstrations to be turned into attacks on property or people," he said.
Wednesday's attack on the Iranian consulate in Najaf set off a further escalation of violence.
On Thursday, security forces shot dead 46 people in another southern city, Nassiriya, 12 in Najaf and four in Baghdad bringing the death toll from weeks of unrest to at least 408, most of them unarmed protesters, according to a Reuters tally from medical and police sources.
Clashes between protesters and security forces broke out early on Friday in Nassiriya wounding several people, hospital sources said.
Iraq's "enemies and their apparatuses are trying to sow chaos and infighting to return the country to the age of dictatorship ... everyone must work together to thwart that opportunity," Sistani said, without elaborating.