Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday condemned the use of force to disperse protest camps across the country, as security forces stepped up a crackdown against demonstrators.
Protesters across Iraq are seeking the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling elite and an end to foreign interference in Iraqi politics, especially by Iran, which has come to dominate state institutions since dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in a 2003 US-led invasion.
Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest which began in October, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead. At least 11 have been killed since the protests resumed earlier this month.
Sistani, who delivered his message through a representative at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, also renewed calls for early elections to be held freely and fairly.
"It is imperative to hurry and hold an early election for the people to have their say, and for the next parliament to be formed from their free will, to take the necessary steps towards reform," he said.
He said that the next parliament would be able "to take decisive measures that will determine the future of the country, especially regarding the preservation of its sovereignty and the independence of its political decisions."
Tensions boiled over when the United States killed Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3. Iran responded with ballistic missile attacks on two Iraqi military bases housing US troops.
Baghdad condemned both the killing of Soleimani and Iran's missile attacks on two Iraqi bases housing US troops as acts of aggression on Iraq and a breach of its sovereignty.
Sistani also "strongly condemned" US President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan.
"The religious authority condemns strongly the oppressive plan that has been unveiled recently to legitimise the occupation of more Palestinian lands," Sistani said.