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Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric said a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence, as armed men killed at least 12 people, including three police, near a Baghdad protest site on Friday.
More than 70 others were wounded by gunfire and stabbings near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said.
It was the most violent flare-up in the capital for weeks and came a week after Iraqi's pime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.
Security sources said they could not identify the gunmen who attacked protesters.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shiite Iran's interests.
Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.
The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.
Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.
He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.
"We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline" of 15 days since the resignation was formalised in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.
"It must also take place without any foreign interference," he said, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the
process of choosing a new government.
The burning of Iran's consulate in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Iraq's Shiite clergy, and subsequent killings of
protesters by security forces in southern cities paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.
Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.
More than a dozen members of the security forces have been killed in the clashes.
Washington on Friday imposed sanctions on three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders who it accused of
directing the killing of Iraqi protesters. A senior US Treasury official suggested the sanctions were timed to distance those figures from any role in forming a new government.
Iraq's two main allies, the United States and Iran, have acted as power brokers in Iraq since the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, although Tehran's allies havRead More – Source