Iraq’s Shiite Clerics Back Protests as Maliki Says Stay Inside

Iraq’s senior Shiite Muslim clerics affirmed the right to peaceful demonstrations as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Iraqis to stay home after five people were reported killed in clashes with security forces.

“Demonstrations on the streets of Iraq are taking place because people are collectively saying that they want to be heard,” Sheikh Ahmed Al-Safi told thousands of Muslims gathered at Imam Hussein Square in the southern city of Karbala today. “The constitution guarantees the right of protests and it is the right of any person to protest peacefully.”

Al-Safi is a spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader.

Rallies across Iraq calling for more accountability from elected leaders and better services have intensified since the start of the month, beginning before a wave of unrest swept through North Africa and the Middle East. Five people were killed in clashes today between security forces and protesters in the northern city of Mosul, Al Jazeera said.

Al-Maliki yesterday ordered an indefinite curfew in Baghdad and warned people not to participate in rallies planned for today. While Iraqis have legitimate demands and their right to protest is guaranteed, Islamists and Baathists will try to instigate violence, he said.

Lawmakers earlier this week approved the 2011 budget and diverted some funds that had been earmarked for fighter jets to increase salaries and social programs for the poor.

‘Impeded From Protests’

Regulations imposed last year have “effectively impeded Iraqis from organizing lawful protests,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report. The rules require organizers to get written approval from both the minister of interior and the provincial governor before submitting an application to the police not less than 72 hours before a planned event, HRW said.

Dozens of men wielding clubs and knives attacked about 50 protesters who had set up tents in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on Feb. 21, wounding at least 20, according to the HRW report. At previous rallies in Baghdad, Human Rights Watch said it observed members of the security forces intimidating protesters by videotaping them and threatening to arrest them.

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