Iraq cleric pushes anti-corruption fight as protests flare

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric called on the prime minister on Friday to “strike with an iron fist” against corruption, as fresh anti-government protests erupted in Baghdad and Basra.

People shout slogans during a demonstration against corruption and poor services in regard to power cuts and water shortages, at Tahrir Square in central Baghdad, Iraq, August 7, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmad Mousa

Public anger at power cuts as temperatures soar past 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) and mismanagement of other services has triggered big protests in recent weeks in Baghdad and the southern oil city of Basra.

As thousands filled main squares again on Friday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani pushed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who last month ordered cuts to top officials’ salaries and perks including subsidized power for their homes, to go further.

“What is needed from him is to be more daring and braver in his reforms and not to suffice with some secondary steps which he announced recently,” Sistani’s aide Ahmed al-Safi said in a Friday sermon. “The people ... will assist him in achieving that.”

The protests could hamper government efforts to rally support in its fight to push Islamic State militants from territory they hold in the north and west of Iraq.

In Basra on Friday, one sign depicted the city as a bony “milking cow” -- a reference to complaints that Baghdad has benefited from the region’s oil while neglecting basic services like power and water.

“I call for fighting any corrupt official,” said government employee Muntadhar Hatam, 55. “They are more dangerous than Daesh (Islamic State). They are the terrorists.”

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Sistani, an octogenarian whose authority few Iraqi politicians would dare openly challenge, called on Abadi, a moderate Shi’ite Islamist, to pursue reform without regard for political affiliation or sect.

“(Abadi) should strike with an iron fist those who tamper with the people’s money ... (He needs) to point to those who slow down reform no matter who they are or what position they hold,” Sistani’s aide said.

“He should place the right man in the right position, even if he is not a member of the ruling parties and regardless of his sectarian or ethnic affiliation.”

Iraq’s sectarian sharing system for government positions has been criticized for promoting unqualified candidates and producing mismanagement and corruption.

Abadi later said on his official Facebook page that he was committed to Sistani’s guidance, adding: “I promise to announce a comprehensive reform plan ... and I call on the political forces to cooperate with me to implement the reform program.”

Abadi, who has sought reconciliation between Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni communities, has come to rely more on Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias to counter Islamic State offensives given the weakening of government forces.

Some militias announced they would participate in Friday’s demonstration, with members seen wearing civilian attire.

Not everyone seemed pleased with their presence.

“We want civil parties because the religious ones have proven themselves a failure,” said Basra protester Mustafa Ahmed, 30.

Reporting by Saif Hameed, Ahmed Rasheed and Reuters TV; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Catherine Evans