File photo. Photograph:( AFP )
'It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction,' Sistani said in a letter read out by his representative Ahmed al-Safi during a sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.
The death toll from days of violent demonstrations across Iraq surged to 46 on Friday, most of them killed in the last 24 hours, as unrest rapidly accelerated and the country's most powerful cleric placed the blame squarely on politicians.
In a rare intervention, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose word is law for most of Iraq's majority Shi'ites, called on protesters and the security forces to avoid violence. But he also ordered political factions to respond to protest demands.
"It is sorrowful that there have been so many deaths, casualties and destruction," Sistani said in a letter read out by his representative Ahmed al-Safi during a sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.
"The government and political sides have not answered the demands of the people to fight corruption or achieved anything on the ground," he said. "Parliament holds the biggest responsibility for what is happening."
In an overnight TV address, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he understood the frustration of the public but there was no "magic solution" to Iraq's problems. He pledged reforms, though these have so far drawn scorn from demonstrators.
The violent demonstrations have escalated by the day since they first erupted on Tuesday, sweeping across the country spontaneously, without public backing from any organized political group and taking the authorities by surprise.
Security forces have fired live ammunition at crowds of mainly young men, and gunmen have fired back. Hundreds of people have been wounded, including members of the security forces as well as demonstrators.
Police and medical sources said the death toll included 18 people killed in the southern city of Nassiriya, 16 in the capital Baghdad, four in the southern city of Amara and four in Baquba, to the capital's north. Other deaths were reported in two other southern cities, Hilla and Najaf.
Curfews were imposed in a number of cities. Authorities shut roads into the capital from the north and northeast and were sending reinforcements to Baghdad's densely-populated east. Military convoys were being sent to Nassiriya, the city worst hit by the violence.
Protesters in Baghdad gathered in darkness overnight by a bonfire set among the flaming wreckage of an armoured vehicle, across the Tigris River from the government compound.
"They are shooting live fire at the Iraqi people and the revolutionaries. We can cross the bridge and take them out of the Green Zone!" a man shouted to Reuters TV.
"Abdul Mahdi, they will cross the bridge. You better resign. Resign. The people demand the fall of the regime!" he shouted as the crowd behind him took up a chant that swept the Middle East during popular uprisings across the region in 2011: "The people demand the fall of the regime!"
The unrest, fuelled by popular rage over poor living standards and corruption, is Iraq's biggest security challenge since the defeat of Islamic State in 2017. It is also the first test for Abdul Mahdi, installed last year by Shi'ite parties that have dominated Iraq since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
It also comes on the eve of the Arbaeen Shi'ite pilgrimage, which in recent years has drawn 20 million worshippers, trekking for days on foot across southern Iraq in the world's biggest annual gathering, ten times the size of the Mecca Hajj.
Pilgrims were already taking to the roads on Friday, although in what appeared to be smaller numbers than in recent years. Iran has closed one of the border crossings used by millions of pilgrims. Qatar has told its citizens to stay away.
A senior Iranian cleric blamed the unrest on the United States and Israel, saying they aimed to thwart the pilgrimage.
The Iraqi capital was quieter early on Friday ahead of Muslim prayers, although police fired live ammunition again in the morning to disperse small crowds. An ongoing curfew, defied by thousands of demonstrators on Thursday, saw the army and special forces deploy around central squares and streets.
Iraqis expect large protests to erupt later in the day.
Abdul Mahdi acknowledged the public discontent in his overnight television message, insisting politicians were aware of the suffering of the masses: "We do not live in ivory towers - we walk among you in the streets of Baghdad," he said.
He called for calm and for support from lawmakers to reshuffle cabinet posts away from the influence of big parties and groups. He said a basic wage for poor families would be discussed by the government, but that no "magic solutions" had been available to fix the country.
The protests could grow if they receive formal backing from the opposition political bloc of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has long denounced corruption and the political elite.
'Revolution of Hunger'
"We Sadrists support the protests by all means, but we would wait for orders from our leader Sayyed Moqtada before we would take to the streets," a senior Sadrist politician, Awad Awadi, told Reuters. He called the protests "a revolution of hunger."
Ahmed al-Kinani, a lawmaker from a party linked to a powerful Iran-backed militia, said most of the protesters were simply demanding their rights, but a minority were using the demonstrations to target the security forces. His party was willing to do what it takes to calm the situation, including accepting a reshuffling of cabinet ministries.
Two years after the defeat of the Islamic State Sunni militant movement, Iraq has finally been at peace and free to trade for the first extended period since the 1970s, with oil exports at record levels. But Iraqis say they have seen few benefits, with infrastructure still in ruins and jobs scarce.