The hardline cleric, known to be anti-U.S. occupation, said that the protesters have the right to demonstrate as long as they are peaceful, in a statement made from the holy Shiite city of Najaf.
Protesters have been holding rallies in the western desert province of Anbar and other Sunni strongholds for more than a week. The demonstrations follow the arrest of bodyguards assigned to the Sunni finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi, though they tap into deeper Sunni grievances of perceived discrimination by the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Al-Sadr grudgingly backed longtime rival al-Maliki following elections in 2010, then last year joined Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for al-Maliki to resign.
Maliki looked to head off protests in Sunni areas of the country with a prisoner release even as he threatened to use state resources to “intervene” to end the rallies.
Maliki ordered the release of more than 700 female detainees, a key demand of demonstrators, the official appointed to negotiate with protesters, told AFP.
“The prime minister will write to the president to issue a special amnesty to release them”, Khaled al-Mullah said.
Mullah said of 920 female prisoners in Iraqi jails, 210 had been accused or convicted of terrorism-related offences and could not be released. But, he said, they would be transferred to prisons in their home provinces.
The remaining detainees, convicted on lower-level charges, would be released, he said. He did not give a timeframe for the process.