NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric urged the country's politicians Saturday to heed calls for reform after thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to protest against corruption and poor basic services.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraq's government and parliament to take serious steps in improving electricity services, providing jobs and fighting corruption in the country, where progress remains slow eight years after the U.S. invasion.
"The Marjaiya, which has always stressed to officials to work on people's legitimate demands, is warning them not to insist on sticking to current policies in running the state," according to a statement issued by Sistani's office.
Sistani, who publicly steers clear of politics, wields huge clout and is seen as a force of unity amongst most of Iraq's Shi'ites. The Marjaiya refers to the country's senior Shi'ite clergy and often means Sistani himself.
Thousands of Iraqis inspired by uprisings across the Arab region took part in a "Day of Rage" Friday to protest against shortages in food rations, water, power and jobs.
At least 10 people died and scores were hurt in clashes as demonstrators threw rocks and tried to storm government buildings. Security forces used sticks and fired shots to try to disperse them.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called on authorities to launch an independent inquiry into the deaths and said security personnel responsible for any unlawful use of force should be prosecuted.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has affirmed Iraqis' right to protest and admitted shortcomings in basic services, vowed Friday not to ignore their demands.
Protests in Iraq have been rising in recent weeks although demonstrations have been scattered and Iraqis are mainly not seeking to oust their elected government, which was formed two months ago.
Saturday, around 2,000 protesters rallied in central Sulaimaniya in Kurdish northern Iraq to protest against poor basic services while fewer than 100 demonstrators gathered in the western city of Falluja. One person died and 11 were hurt in clashes in Sulaimaniya, hospital sources said.
Sistani urged politicians to speed up reforms and warned them of consequences "which could result from a lack of speed in providing radical solutions to citizens' problems, who have been patient for so long."
Additional reporting by Fadhel al-Badrani in Falluja; Writing by Muhanad Mohammed; Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Alastair Macdonald