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Ali al-Sistani fears worse bloodshed in Iraq as US-Iran conflict persists

  • Published at 10:43 pm January 10th, 2020
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Iraqi demonstrators carry an Iraqi flag during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq January 10, 2020 Reuters

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said attacks by both sides inside Iraq this month showed blatant disregard for its sovereignty and its people stood to suffer most from Washington and Tehran's conflict

Iraq's top Shia Muslim cleric on Friday condemned the US-Iranian confrontation taking place on Iraqi soil, saying it risked plunging the war-ravaged country and the wider Middle East into deeper conflict.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said attacks by both sides inside Iraq this month showed blatant disregard for its sovereignty and its people stood to suffer most from Washington and Tehran's conflict.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked Washington to come up with a plan for a withdrawal of US troops from the country, his office said, according to a Washington Post report.

The latest flare-up in the long shadow war started with the US killing of Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, in an air strike in Baghdad on January 3. Iran responded on Wednesday by firing missiles at US forces in Iraq.

In the aftermath, both sides backed off from intensifying the conflict but the region remains tense, with Iranian military commanders threatening more attacks.

Neighbouring Iraq looks set to bear the brunt of any further US-Iranian violence, its leaders caught in a bind as Washington and Tehran are also the Baghdad government's main allies and vie for influence there.

In a message delivered through a representative at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, Sistani said no foreign powers should be allowed to decide Iraq's fate.

"The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are a part of the deteriorating situation" in the region, Sistani said.

Sistani, who wields huge influence over public opinion in Iraq, only weighs in on politics during times of crisis and is seen as a voice of moderation.

"The people have suffered enough from wars...Iraq must govern itself and there must be no role for outsiders in its decision-making," Sistani said.

Iraq has suffered decades of war, sanctions and sectarian conflict, including two US-led invasions and the rise and fall of Sunni militant groups al Qaeda and Islamic State.

The Washington Post said Mahdi had asked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call to devise a mechanism for the withdrawal of the 5,000 US troops from Iraq following a parliamentary decision last week. The State Department did not return a request for comment.

At Friday prayers in Tehran, an Iranian cleric said US interests across the world were now exposed to threat.

"From now on, having too many bases, especially in this region, will not act as an advantage for them," Mohammad Javad Haj Aliakbari, a mid-ranking cleric, told worshippers.