Iraq's top Shia cleric on Friday (February 7th) condemned recent deadly attacks on anti-government demonstrators.
Eight demonstrators were killed this week in attacks on protest camps by supporters of populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, including in the shrine city of Najaf.
In his weekly sermon delivered by a representative, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the bloodshed as "painful and unfortunate" and said state security forces are "indispensable" to keep Iraq from "falling into the abyss of chaos".
"There is no justification for them to stop fulfilling their duties in this regard, or for anyone to stop them from doing so," al-Sistani said.
"They must bear responsibility for maintaining security and stability, protecting peaceful protestors and their gathering places, revealing the identities of aggressors and infiltrators, and protecting the interests of citizens from the attacks of saboteurs."
Al-Sistani has condemned attacks on protestors in previous sermons.
New threats from Sadrists
This week, demonstrators said they faced a new threat from supporters of al-Sadr, who initially backed the protest movement but then threw his support behind the nomination of Mohammad Allawi as Iraq's new prime minister last weekend.
Sadrists turned on the other demonstrators, driving them out of their protest camps in the centres of major cities.
In Hilla on Monday, one demonstrator was fatally stabbed as Sadrists, wearing their trademark blue caps, clashed with protestors. And in Najaf on Wednesday, seven activists were shot dead after al-Sadr supporters stormed their camp.
Al-Sistani's sermon appeared to have buoyed the remaining demonstrators in Baghdad's central Tahrir Square on Friday.
"I was watching, afraid that he would be too general and it would allow for more suppression of the protests," said one activist who gave his name only as Ali.
"But he was able to deliver a message: he accepts only the official security forces, no 'blue caps' or anyone else."
Iran-backed Iraqi militias have been accused of being behind the assassinations, kidnappings and threats directed against leaders and activists taking part in the protests.