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Iraq death toll passes 400 after weeks of mass protests

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urges parliament to drop its support for the current cabinet following latest unrest
Relatives react by the coffin of a demonstrator who was killed at an anti-government protest in Najaf (Reuters)

The death toll in Iraq from weeks of anti-government unrest rose on Friday to at least 408 people killed, mostly unarmed protesters, a count based on police and medical sources showed.

Dozens of people have been shot dead by security forces across Iraq since protesters torched the Iranian consulate in the southern city of Najaf late on Wednesday in the latest escalation in the violence.

The deaths bring the total nationwide to 408 since 1 October, according to a tally from Reuters. More than 15,ooo people have also been wounded according to the AFP news agency. 

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Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's top Shia cleric, urged parliament on Friday to drop its support for the current cabinet following the unrest.

"The parliament, from which this current government is drawn, is asked to reconsider its choice in this regard and act according to Iraq's interest... [to] preserve the blood of its children," Sistani said in a weekly sermon delivered by his representative in the holy city of Karbala.

Sistani said attacks on peaceful protesters were "forbidden" but also urged demonstrators to reject violence.

Protesters "must not allow peaceful demonstrations to be turned into attacks on property or people", he said.

Iraq's "enemies and their apparatuses are trying to sow chaos and infighting to return the country to the age of dictatorship... everyone must work together to thwart that opportunity", Sistani said, without elaborating.

Clashes between protesters and security forces broke out early on Friday in Nasiriyah, killing three protesters and wounding several people, hospital sources told Reuters.

Unemployed youths

The protests, which began in Baghdad on 1 October and have spread throughout southern cities, are the most complex challenge facing the Shia-dominated ruling class that has controlled state institutions and patronage networks since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled longtime Sunni ruler Saddam Hussein.

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Protesters are mostly unemployed youths who are demanding the departure of Iraq's entire political elite.

Security forces have used live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades against mostly unarmed protesters. 

Some demonstrators have lobbed petrol bombs, bricks and fired slingshots at police.

In a statement on Thursday evening, the influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on the government to resign immediately or it would mean "the beginning of the end of Iraq", warning that the country could turn into Syria if the problems were not addressed.