Iraq's top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has blamed the government for the "bloodshed" during recent unrest on Iraqi streets, and gave Baghdad two weeks to release the findings of a probe into the 104 deaths recorded during the protests since October 1.
The influential Sistani’s remarks were read out by a representative on October 11 during weekly prayers in a mosque in Sistani’s home city of Karbala.
Sistani "demands that the government investigate to find out which elements gave orders to shoot protesters, whatever their affiliation," Abdel-Mahdi al-Karbalai said in reading Sistani’s sermon.
"This is a pressing measure at present and shows the extent of the government’s seriousness and sincerity in carrying out real reforms," he added.
Sistani said the government was responsible for the deaths of protesters who took to the streets to express anti-government anger.
The comments are likely to put new pressure on Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi nearly a year since he came to power.
Another, more radical Shi’ite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, called on October 4 for the government to resign and for early elections as protests intensified across the country.
The demonstrators have been protesting high unemployment, poor public services, and widespread corruption in the country's worst violence since an Islamic State (IS) insurgency was largely defeated in 2017.
In his sermon, Sistani denounced the use of snipers to quell unrest and demanded that the government find out who had given the orders to shoot. He did not specify his actions if authorities did not meet his two-week deadline.
Sistani also assailed attacks on journalists after unidentified gunmen stormed the offices of several TV stations and at least two reporters were seized and briefly detained, also by unidentified security personnel.
Following Sistani's remarks, Mahdi’s office announced that nine senior officials were referred to the judiciary on corruption allegations -- among them two former ministers, two deputy ministers, and four former provincial governors.
Iraq has a population of nearly 40 million people and is the world's fifth-largest oil producer and exporter, but overall poverty rates are estimated at above 20 percent of the population.
Youth unemployment stands at 25 percent, twice the overall rate in the country.