Iraq's most powerful Shiite religious leader said Monday he backs a U.N. roadmap aimed at meeting the demands of anti-government protesters who have been rallying in recent weeks despite a bloody crackdown by security forces, but he expressed concern that political parties would not carry them out.
At least 12 protesters were wounded in new confrontations with security forces in and around central Baghdad's Khilani Square. Most were hit directly with tear gas canisters, according to security and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Four others were killed overnight in clashes in a southern city, raising the death toll from the confrontations to 320 since the protests began last month.
Protesters ran for cover while police and security forces, some of them masked, fired the tear gas in daylong confrontations that engulfed the area in gray smoke.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said he welcomed the proposals announced by the U.N. in a bid to end the unrest, according to a statement from his office after meeting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf with Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the U.N. special representative to Iraq.
But he said he was concerned that political parties "do not have sufficient seriousness to implement any true reform." If they do not, he said, a "new approach" was needed.
"The situation cannot continue in the same way it has before the protests," said al-Sistani, without elaborating.
As Iraq's top Shiite cleric, the 89-year-old spiritual leader holds significant sway over public opinion and has intervened in previous times of crisis to wield influence over Iraqis.
In sermons since the unrest began Oct. 1, Sistani has sided largely with protesters, saying recently that security forces had a responsibility to show restraint with peaceful demonstrators.
So far, however, there has been no reaction by the government or leading politicians to the proposal put forward Sunday by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq to address the protesters' demands.
The plan calls for a series of ambitious short- and long-term measures focusing on electoral, security and constitutional reforms. The immediate steps include releasing peaceful demonstrators detained since early October, an investigation into cases of abduction, and punishment for those found guilty of using excessive force against protesters.
The roadmap also calls for the political elite to publicly declare their assets in Iraq and abroad, ban armed groups "outside state control" and set up a new electoral framework to be completed within the next two weeks.
Hennis-Plasschaert said the U.N. would monitor the government's progress to ensure measures were being "done promptly, swiftly and decisively because this country needs to move forward."
The demonstrators have demanded the removal of Iraq's political leadership and complain of widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services, including regular power cuts, despite Iraq's vast oil reserves.
Shiite politicians, meanwhile, denounced a statement Sunday by the White House that backed a previous call by Iraqi President Barham Saleh for the election system to be reformed and early elections to be held.
Qais al-Khazali, head of the powerful Iranian-backed Asaib al-Haq militia, said the statement showed "the extent of U.S. intervention in Iraq affairs" and that the idea of early elections was "primarily a U.S. project."
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist whose supporters have the largest number of seats in parliament, warned in a tweet that if the U.S. "interferes one more time, this will be the end of its presence (in Iraq) through protests by millions of people with direct orders from us."
Saleh said last month that early elections would be held following the resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who in turn said his stepping down was contingent on political parties finding a suitable alternative for the premiership. Abdul-Mahdi has stayed in his post since then.
Monday's violence in Baghdad came after renewed clashes between demonstrators and security forces overnight in the southern city of Nasiriyah, killing four protesters and wounding about 130, a rights group said. The casualties came during confrontations outside the education directorate as security forces tear-gassed protesters trying to block employees from reaching the building in the city center.
The semi-official Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, which reported the toll, called the violence "regrettable" and added that some of the wounded are in serious conditions. The group also said at least 34 demonstrators were arbitrarily arrested.
The Israeli military says it has killed an Islamic Jihad commander in an airstrike at his Gaza City home.
It's a rare resumption of pinpointed targeting that threatens a new cross-border round of violence with Palestinian militants.
The Islamic Jihad confirmed Abu el-Atta, the commander, was killed.
The governor of Lebanon's Central Bank sought to calm nerves on Monday amid a worsening economic and financial crisis, pledging to work on safeguarding the stability of the national currency and protecting bank deposits.
Riad Salameh told reporters at a packed press conference that the bank will keep defending the currency peg, stable since 1997. He said there won't be any capital controls or a haircut on customer's bank deposits.
As he spoke, dozens of protesters outside the bank on Beirut's Hamra Street blocked the road, chanting "down with the rule of the banks!" as riot police looked on.
Already facing an economic crisis, Lebanon's financial troubles worsened since nationwide economically driven mass protests erupted last month, paralyzing the country and keeping banks shuttered for two weeks. Depositors have rushed to withdraw their money since the banks reopened last week, with the country's various lenders imposing varying capital controls that differ from bank to bank, fueling the turmoil.
Though it's still pegged at 1,500 pounds to the dollar, the Lebanese pound is trading at up to 1,900 to the dollar on the black market, a devaluation of nearly 30% from the official rate.
"The Central Bank aims to protect the stability of the pound and we have the capability to do that," Salameh said, acknowledging at the same time the difference in price in currency exchange shops, which he said was due to market demand.
He described it as a "phenomenon" that will go away when demand diminishes.
Salameh said Lebanon is a dollarized economy — and "if there are no dollars in the market, then we don't have an economy."
He said a mechanism has been put in place to protect deposits and keep banks afloat. He ruled out capital controls, saying the central bank does not have the legal authority to do that, but that banks should continue to do what makes sense in these "exceptional times" to manage liquidity.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appointed Naftali Bennett, one of the leaders of the New Right party, as the minister of defense.
According to local media reports on Friday, Netanyahu offered Bennett the position at their meeting in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, and Bennett accepted it.
The appointment is expected to be approved at the upcoming government meeting.
Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, currently heads a provisional caretaker government, after he failed twice to form a coalition following two general elections held on April 9 and Sept. 17, respectively.
The mandate to form a government has passed to Benny Gantz, head of the center-left wing party Blue and White which gained 33 seats in the second elections.
Should Gantz fail to form a unity government together with the Likud, elections may soon be held in Israel for the third time in a short period.
Bennett is known for his far-right views and has criticized Netanyahu several times for not acting aggressively in the Gaza Strip after the Palestinian rocket attacks.
Iran's state TV is saying the number of injured people from a magnitude 5.9 earthquake on Friday has jumped to 520 from more than 300.
Saturday's report said the updated figure followed the end of rescue operations in more than 80 remote villages Tark county in Iran's Eastern Azerbaijan province, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of the capital, Tehran.
It said 28 were hospitalized and the rest released with minor injuries, adding that the death toll has remained at five people.
Iran experiences an earthquake per day on average. In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 earthquake flattened the historic city of Bam, killing 26,000 people.
In 2017, a magnitude 7 earthquake struck western Iran and killed more than 600 people and injured more than 9,000.