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Top Iraq cleric condemns deadly attacks on protesters

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Karbala (Iraq) (AFP)

Iraq's top Shiite cleric on Friday condemned recent deadly attacks on anti-government demonstrators, chastising security forces for not doing more to prevent violence in protest squares across the country.

Eight demonstrators were killed this week in attacks on protest camps by supporters of populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, including in the shrine city of Najaf -- home to Iraq's Shiite religious leadership.

In his weekly sermon delivered by a representative, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani condemned the bloodshed as "painful and unfortunate" and said state security forces are "indispensable" to keeping the country from "falling into the abyss of chaos."

"There is no justification for them to stop fulfilling their duties in this regard, or for anyone to stop them from doing so," Sistani said.

"They must bear responsibility for maintaining security and stability, protecting peaceful protesters and their gathering places, revealing the identities of aggressors and infiltrators, and protecting the interests of citizens from the attacks of saboteurs."

Earlier this week, Sadr called on his supporters to ensure the reopening of schools, roads and government offices that had been shut by months of dsemonstrations.

Nearly 490 people have been killed in protest-related violence since October, when rallies erupted in Baghdad and across the Shiite-majority south demanding an overhaul of the political elite.

Security forces responded with tear gas, live rounds and even machine gun fire, which Sistani had condemned in previous sermons.

This week, demonstrators said they faced a new threat from supporters of Sadr, who initally backed the protest movement but then threw his support behind the nomination of Mohammad Allawi as Iraq's new prime minister last weekend.

Most protesters rejected two-time communications minister Allawi as too close to the political elite they had been demonstrating against for months.

Sadr supporters turned on the other demonstrators, driving them out of their protest camps in the centres of major cities.

In Hilla on Monday, one demonstrator was fatally stabbed as Sadrists, wearing their trademark blue caps, clashed with anti-government protesters.

And in Najaf on Wednesday, seven activists were shot dead after Sadr supporters stormed their camp.

Sistani's sermon appeared to have buoyed the remaining demonstrators in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square on Friday.

"I was watching, afraid that he would be too general and it would allow for more suppression of the protests," said one activist who gave his name only as Ali.

"But he was able to deliver a message: he accepts only the official security forces, no 'blue caps' or anyone else."

In Diwaniyah further south, demonstrator Mohammad al-Bulani said the sermon showed Sistani's support for the protest movement.

"He is the only one that has stood with our demands and defended us," he said.

"We hope we don't lose this important support because everyone -- from political parties to militias and illegal armed factions -- is trying to annihilate us to end the demonstrations by any means."

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