Iraq protests: Top Shia cleric gives support to protests

Protests in Iraq on FridayImage copyrightReutersImage caption At least 319 people have been killed during six weeks of mass anti-government protests

Iraq's top Shia cleric has given his support to protests calling for an end to rampant corruption and mass unemployment.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, 89, said the government was deluded if it believed it could avoid real reform through stalling and delaying tactics.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets since 1 October with wide-ranging demands.

An explosion in central Baghdad killed at least two people on Friday.

Iraqi security officials said the blast happened near Tahrir square, the centre of the anti-government demonstrations. More than a dozen others were injured.

At least 319 people have been killed at the protests, where security forces have fired live rounds and tear gas.

Protesters are demanding more jobs, an end to corruption, and better public services.

The UN and US have urged the Iraqi government to stop using violence against protesters, pass electoral reforms and hold early elections.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shia Muslim cleric, gave a significant boost to the protesters on Friday.

"If those in power think that they can evade the benefits of real reform by stalling and procrastination, they are delusional," he said in his weekly sermon, delivered by a representative in the holy city of Karbala.

"What comes after these protests will not be the same as before, and they should be aware of that."

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How tuk-tuks are saving lives in the Iraq protests

Large numbers then took the streets in Najaf, south of Baghdad, where the cleric, who never appears in public, is based.

Protesters also flocked to the streets of Baghdad although panic set in when the bomb went off.