Iraq's leading Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called for the prosecution of the most senior officials suspected of corruption and the return of stolen funds.
Sistani, whose word few Iraqi politicians would openly challenge, has put his authority behind a recent reform drive by Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi and urged him to take a stronger stance against the corruption and mismanagement that have made Iraq nearly impossible to govern.
"One of the vital steps of reform is to pursue the major figures of corruption and hold them accountable and to retrieve the stolen funds from them," Sistani said in a Friday sermon, delivered by his aide Ahmed al-Safi.
He also pointed a finger at Iraq's Integrity Commission, a government body tasked with fighting corruption, and the judiciary, saying: "Many wonder if they are up to the task and if they will carry out this mission without any more delays."
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Sistani also urged politicians to establish effective measures to fix Iraq's economy.
"Weak economic planning and failure to establish a comprehensive strategy for providing financial resources to the country other than through oil revenues is a form of corruption," Sistani said.
Reforms and protests
Abbadi's initiative, proposed last month, eliminates entire layers of government, scraps sectarian and party quotas for state positions, reopens corruption investigations and gives the prime minister the power to fire regional and provincial bosses.
But critics have called the moves unconstitutional and said they will not improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis who have braved sweltering summer heat in Baghdad and the southern provinces every Friday for more than a month to protest against poor services and corruption.
Increasingly, street protests that were precipitated last month by widespread power cuts have evolved to demand the trial of corrupt politicians and reform of the judiciary, including the removal of Medhat al-Mahmoud, head of the Supreme Judicial Council, which oversees the court system.
The government's fiscal deficit is expected to reach double digits this year, battered by a slump in oil revenues and higher military spending, not least to try to drive the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group out of the swaths of northern and western Iraq that it controls.
People "have long suffered from corruption" and they want "this mission to be implemented without procrastination and delay", said Sistani's representative, Ahmed al-Safi. "Quick action and real, convincing and assuring steps are needed to show that the officials are serious in implementing reforms," he added.