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Cleric fears worse bloodshed in Iraq as U.S.-Iran conflict persists

World

BAGHDAD/DUBAI (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric on Friday condemned the U.S.-Iranian confrontation taking place on Iraqi soil, saying it risked plunging the war-ravaged country and the wider Middle East into deeper conflict.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said attacks by both sides inside Iraq this month showed blatant disregard for its sovereignty and its people stood to suffer most from Washington and Tehran’s conflict.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked Washington to come up with a plan for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country, his office said, according to a Washington Post report.

The latest flare-up in the long shadow war started with the U.S. killing of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in an air strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3. Iran responded on Wednesday by firing missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq.

In the aftermath, both sides backed off from intensifying the conflict but the region remains tense, with Iranian military commanders threatening more attacks.

Neighboring Iraq looks set to bear the brunt of any further U.S.-Iranian violence, its leaders caught in a bind as Washington and Tehran are also the Baghdad government’s main allies and vie for influence there.

In a message delivered through a representative at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, Sistani said no foreign powers should be allowed to decide Iraq’s fate.

“The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are a part of the deteriorating situation” in the region, Sistani said.

Sistani, who wields huge influence over public opinion in Iraq, only weighs in on politics during times of crisis and is seen as a voice of moderation.

“The people have suffered enough from wars…Iraq must govern itself and there must be no role for outsiders in its decision-making,” Sistani said.

Iraq has suffered decades of war, sanctions and sectarian conflict, including two U.S.-led invasions and the rise and fall of Sunni militant groups al Qaeda and Islamic State.

The Washington Post said Mahdi had asked U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call to devise a mechanism for the withdrawal of the 5,000 U.S. troops from Iraq following a parliamentary decision last week. The State Department did not return a request for comment.

At Friday prayers in Tehran, an Iranian cleric said U.S. interests across the world were now exposed to threat.

“From now on, having too many bases, especially in this region, will not act as an advantage for them,” Mohammad Javad Haj Aliakbari, a mid-ranking cleric, told worshippers.

CALLS TO LEAVE

Since Soleimani’s killing, Tehran has stepped up its calls for U.S. forces to leave Iraq, which like Iran is a mainly Shi’ite Muslim nation. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said the retaliatory strikes were not enough and that ending the U.S. military presence in the region was its main goal.

The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted on Thursday to terminate Trump’s powers to use U.S. armed forces against Iran without Congress’ consent. The measure now goes to the Senate, which is controlled by Trump’s Republican Party, where it faces an uphill battle.

A White House spokesman called the measure “ridiculous”.

Trump said on Thursday Soleimani was killed because he had planned to blow up a U.S. embassy.

“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad, but we stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold,” Trump, who is seeking re-election this year, told a rally in Ohio.

Trump offered no hard evidence of what drove the decision to kill Soleimani, which critics have called a reckless action.

Soleimani carved out a sphere of Iranian influence running through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, challenging regional rival Saudi Arabia as well as the United States and Israel.

In Iran, he was a national hero whose funeral drew crowds of mourners but the West saw him as a dangerous and ruthless enemy.

Complicating the fraught situation, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. officials said they believed a Ukrainian passenger plane that crashed in Iran on Wednesday killing all 176 people on board was brought down by Iranian forces by mistake hours after the missile attacks. Iran denies it downed the plane.

The renewed hostilities followed months of tension since Trump pulled the United States out of Iran’s nuclear pact with world powers in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that have driven down Tehran’s vital oil exports.

In Brussels, EU foreign ministers and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg were meeting on Friday to find ways to push the United States and Iran away from open conflict.

Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein, John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan