Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday condemned the use of force to disperse protest camps across the country, as security forces stepped up a crackdown against demonstrators, Reuters reported.
Protesters across Iraq are seeking the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling elite and an end to foreign interference in Iraqi politics, especially by Iran.
Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest which began in October, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead. At least 11 have been killed since the protests resumed earlier this month.
Sistani, who delivered his message through a representative at Friday prayers in the holy city of Karbala, also renewed calls for early elections to be held freely and fairly.
"It is imperative to hurry and hold an early election for the people to have their say, and for the next parliament to be formed from their free will, to take the necessary steps towards reform," he said.