Iraq’s top Shia Muslim cleric has condemned the use of force against protesters after more than 40 people were killed in the bloodiest day since anti-government protests began.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also suggested lawmakers withdraw their support for the government.
Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has ordered an investigation into violence in Dhi Qar and Najaf provinces.
Nearly 400 people have been killed in protests since the start of October.
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Iraqis are demanding more jobs, an end to corruption and better public services.
What did Sistani say?
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said attacks on peaceful protesters were “forbidden”, his representative said in a televised sermon in the city of Kerbala.
The government “appears to have been unable to deal with the events of the past two months” and “parliament, from which the current government emerged, must reconsider its choices and do what’s in the interest of Iraq,” he said.
The ayatollah also urged demonstrators to avoid violence and “eject vandals” from their midst.
Protesters “must not allow peaceful demonstrations to be turned into attacks on property or people,” his representative said.
On Wednesday night hundreds of protesters burned the Iranian consulate in Kerbala, which is the seat of Iraq’s Shia religious authority and the location of the revered Imam Ali shrine, where the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad is buried.
What’s the latest?
On Friday large crowds attended funerals for those killed in the city of Najaf and protesters rallied in the city of Nasiriyah, where at least 25 people were killed, calling for the government to step down.
There were also reports that two protesters had been shot dead in Baghdad.
Prime Minister Mahdi is forming a committee headed by his military adviser to investigate violence in Dhi Qar and Najaf. The deputy governor of Najaf has resigned, following the governor who resigned on Thursday.
On Friday UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned over reports of the continued use of live ammunition against demonstrators” and called for “maximum restraint”.
What happened on Thursday?
Amnesty International’s Middle East research director, Lynn Maalouf, said there had been a “bloodbath” in Nasiriyah and accused security forces of “appalling violence against largely peaceful protesters”.
At least 25 people died when security forces opened fire to clear bridges there. Protesters responded by torching a police station.
Ten protesters died in the city of Najaf after security forces cracked down following the burning of Iran’s consulate, and a curfew is in place.
Another four protesters died in Baghdad as protesters tried to cross a bridge towards the so-called Green Zone that hosts the country’s parliament.
Why did protesters target an Iranian consulate?
Many of those taking part have expressed anger at Iran’s influence over Iraq’s internal affairs, which has steadily grown since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Protesters accuse Iran of complicity in what they see as Iraq’s governance failure and corruption.
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They chanted “Iran out of Iraq” as Iran’s mission in Najaf burned. It is the second attack on an Iranian consulate in Iraq this month after an office in the Shia holy city of Karbala was targeted three weeks ago.
What’s the background?
Mr Abdul Mahdi took office just over a year ago, promising reforms that have not materialised.
Young Iraqis angered by his failure to tackle high unemployment, endemic corruption and poor public services took to the streets of Baghdad for the first time at the beginning of October.
After the first wave of protests, which lasted six days and saw 149 civilians killed, Mr Abdul Mahdi promised to reshuffle his cabinet and cut the salaries of high-ranking officials, and also announced schemes to reduce youth unemployment.
But the protesters said their demands had not been met and returned to the streets in late October.
The demonstrations escalated and spread across the country after security personnel responded with deadly force.
President Barham Saleh has said Mr Abdul Mahdi will resign if parties can agree on a replacement.