Iraq's top cleric said Friday he was not taking part in talks on the country's new premier, as his supporters joined apprehensive youths still protesting in the capital despite widening intimidation campaigns.
Young demonstrators have thronged Baghdad and the south since October, accusing the entrenched political elite of corruption and incompetence.
Last week, they brought down embattled prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who resigned after top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani intervened following a crackdown on protesters that has left around 430 people dead.
This Friday, Sistani said the Shia religious leadership, or "marjaiyah," was not involved in talks on a new PM.
"The marjaiyah is not party to any discussions on this and has no role in any way whatsoever," he said, in a sermon read by his representative in the shrine city of Karbala.
He did, however, urge that a new premier be selected within the 15-day window outlined in the constitution and with no "foreign interference."
Iraq's main political blocs have been debating candidates for the premiership but have yet to name anyone.
Two key foreign officials have attended the talks, according to a senior political source -- Iran's pointman for Iraq Major General Qasem Soleimani and Mohammad Kawtharany, a leading power-broker from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement.
Iran in particular wields tremendous sway among Iraqi political and military figures, especially the Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force.
But protesters on the streets have publicly rejected what they say is Iran's overreach and have vented their anger against its diplomatic missions.
On Thursday, demonstrators were rattled by the sudden arrival of several thousand Hashed supporters in Baghdad's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the epicentre of the protests.
In an apparent show of force, the newcomers waved sticks, national flags and the Hashed's emblem -- a symbol shunned by the vast majority of protesters.
The Hashed's political arm, the Fatah bloc, had been one of the prime minister's main backers throughout the crisis but changed its tune after Sistani's call for parliament to drop its support for Abdel Mahdi.
The Hashed began publicly supporting the protests and Sistani on their social media pages -- while repeatedly claiming there were "infiltrators" within the crowds.
Demonstrators have expressed doubts about the Hashed's support, saying Thursday's display was an attempt to "ruin" their non-partisan rallies.
Apprehensive about a repetition on Friday, protesters erected new checkpoints around the square overnight and searched rucksacks of young demonstrators seeking to join.
There were more newcomers on Friday, this time hundreds of clerics and officials from shrines in Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf and other cities.
With robed clerics in white turbans at their head, their procession circled through Tahrir, carrying signs reading, "The marjaiyah is our support!"
"The sheikhs and clerics from Karbala took part in these protests, as well as convoys from the religious shrines," said Fadel Oz, an official from the revered Karbala shrine.
"This is in support of our brothers protesting in Tahrir."
One protester told AFP their presence made it less likely the rallies would devolve into clashes.
"The religious shrines' involvement grants legitimacy and numbers to the protests," said Thaer Istayfi, 41.
Tahrir has become a melting pot of Iraqi society, occupied day and night by thousands of demonstrators angry with the political system in place since the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003 and Iran's role in propping it up.
Their public criticism of leading Iranian figures, including Soleimani, has broken a taboo and some among the protesters fear there will payback.
Many in Tahrir keep their faces covered, saying they have been filmed or photographed by individuals that they suspect are "not real protesters."
They worry they could be kidnapped or worse if they are identified as having opposed Iran or its allies, or simply for taking part in anti-government rallies.
Earlier this week, the bruised body of 19-year-old Zahra Ali was left outside her family home after she went missing, her father said.
And on Friday, the relatives of Zeid al-Khafaji, a photographer who had become well-known in the square, said he too had been kidnapped.
They said the 22-year-old had been snatched from outside his home by unidentified men in SUVs as he was returning from Tahrir.
Amnesty International said the reports of his abduction were "alarming."
"Local authorities have denied knowledge of the incident or his whereabouts. That is not good enough!" it said.