BAGHDAD — Iraq's top Shiite cleric urged the government on Friday to press ahead with reforms and fighting corruption, but cautioned against doing so at the expense of the fight against the Islamic State group, which is tenaciously holding on to large swaths of Iraqi territory.
In a sermon delivered by a representative, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged the government to continue the reforms and swiftly go after the "big thieves of public funds."
Hours after the sermon in the holy city of Karbala, thousands rallied in Baghdad and a string of other cities to press demands for reforms, better services and an end to corruption. The rallies were the latest in a series of peaceful gatherings over the past month demanding change.
Baghdad's rally attracted up to 10,000, many waving Iraqi flags and chanting the national anthem. The rallies in the southern city of Basra, in Karbala and Najaf, also south of the Iraqi capital, were smaller. In Baghdad, hundreds of army and police cordoned off the rally, sealing off roads leading to the venue, the central Tahrir Square, as army helicopters hovered above.
"People are here to demand everything because they have nothing and trust no one," said Ahmed Ali, a father of three who was at the Baghdad rally. Many in the crowd wore baseball caps with the inscription, "No to corruption!" while others wore white T-shirts with the word: "Enough!"
The Iranian-born al-Sistani also cautioned against the reform campaign distracting authorities from the fight against the Islamic State, describing it as the "most honorable and righteous battle because it is fought in defense of our existence and future."
The warning, delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi, appeared inspired by the struggle of the military and its allies to regain territory captured by IS in the vast Anbar province west of Baghdad and its recent advances on the southern parts of the oil refinery town of Beiji, which was liberated from IS control last November.
Iraqi troops, despite the assistance of U.S.-led airstrikes, have struggled to claw back ground lost to the Islamic State in the Sunni militant group's blitz last year, and have yet to attempt to retake Iraq's second largest city, Mosul. The IS now controls about a third of both Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The crowds rallying in Baghdad and elsewhere are pushing for an improvement in the government's erratic services, from power and water to medical care and education. The protesters, who have gathered for weeks now every Friday, are also calling for effective, anti-graft measures.
In the meantime, Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has won parliament's support to trim his government and also declared his intention to seek a popular mandate to amend the constitution, adopted in 2005, which he has described as "incomplete."
Al-Sistani also backed that reform push, saying "the battle for reforms we are fighting these days is also a vital one that will determine our and the nation's future."
"We, people and government, have no choice but to win that battle," al-Safi quoted al-Sistani as saying.
But Souad Mohammed, a 61-year-old retiree who came to the Baghdad rally with an Iraqi flag in hand and two grown sons, lamented the lack of what she called a "unified vision" among the protesters.
"We are not making any progress in Iraq. In fact, we are going backward," she said.