Drone hits Iraq cleric's home as death toll rises after Baghdad attacks

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - An armed drone targeted the home of Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr on Saturday, hours after his supporters gathered in Baghdad in response to a bloody night of attacks by unknown gunmen that officials said left at least 25 protesters dead and 130 wounded.

The attack was among the deadliest since October 1, when thousands of Iraqis took to the streets calling for sweeping political reforms and the end of Iran’s influence in Iraqi affairs. Security forces regularly use live rounds and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations, leading to heavy casualties.

Gunfire continued until the early hours of Saturday morning. The assailants first unleashed the deadly assault on Baghdad’s Khilani Square and Sinak Bridge, driving through the areas that are the epicentre of the popular uprising.

Sadr has backed the protests, but demonstrators have been wary of his support as they feared it could pave the way for confrontations with pro-government forces.

Early on Saturday, a drone dropped a bomb on his home in the shrine city of Najaf, damaging the exterior wall, sources within his party told AFP.

Sadr is currently in Iran.

Anti-government activists have sought to blame supporters of Iran-backed Iraqi militias, which have staged similar attacks against protester sit-ins in the capital and the country’s southern cities.

Iraqi security forces were deployed to streets leading to the square by the early morning.

Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric said a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani’s comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shiite Iran’s interests.

A protester checks the site of a shooting in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, December 7, 2019. AP

Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.

The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.

Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.

He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous 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 in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in Kerbala.

“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said. He also said Sistani would not get involved in the process of choosing a new government.

The burning of Iran’s consulate in Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shiite 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 their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests in which security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.

Updated: December 7, 2019 04:35 PM

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