BAGHDAD – Iraq's most powerful Shiite religious leader said Monday he backs a U.N. roadmap aimed at meeting the demands of anti-government protesters who have been rallying in recent weeks despite a bloody crackdown by security forces, but he expressed concern that political parties would not carry them out.
At least 12 protesters were wounded in new confrontations with security forces in and around central Baghdad's Khilani Square. Most were hit directly with tear gas canisters, according to security and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Four others were killed overnight in clashes in a southern city, raising the death toll from the confrontations to 320 since the protests began last month.
Protesters ran for cover while police and security forces, some of them masked, fired the tear gas in daylong confrontations that engulfed the area in gray smoke.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said he welcomed the proposals announced by the U.N. in a bid to end the unrest, according to a statement from his office after meeting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf with Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the U.N. special representative to Iraq.
But he said he was concerned that political parties "do not have sufficient seriousness to implement any true reform." If they do not, he said, a "new approach" was needed.
"The situation cannot continue in the same way it has before the protests," said al-Sistani, without elaborating.
As Iraq's top Shiite cleric, the 89-year-old spiritual leader holds significant sway over public opinion and has intervened in previous times of crisis to wield influence over Iraqis.