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Aug 28, 8:39 AM EDT

Iraq's top cleric says government must genuinely seek change



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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's top Shiite cleric said on Friday the government must show it was seeking genuine change to combat corruption and improve services and not just introduce temporary measures to placate the embattled nation.

In a message delivered by a representative in a Friday sermon, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also cautioned protesters who have staged weekly rallies to press demands for reform that they must guard against groups seeking to hijack their movement to further other interests.

The comments, delivered in the holy Shiite city of Karbala south of Baghdad, came just hours before thousands of Iraqis were to rally in Baghdad and a string of other cities to demand better services and an end to corruption.

Followers of a radical, anti-American Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, are expected to join the rally in Baghdad's central Tahrir square, a move that could give the movement an overt political color when protesters have long tried to keep it above the political fray.

Addressing the government, al-Sistani said it must show that it is "truthfully and seriously" responding to demands for change. "Citizens have experienced past promises that were never realized on the ground," he cautioned.

"Officials must work differently this time around and win the trust of the citizens," he said.

The weekly rallies, which began last month, have been pressing for better basic services like power, water and medical care, as well as an end to corruption and sectarian politics. The malfeasance is widely believed to be rampant, involving hundreds of millions of dollars in the 12 years since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has responded to the rallies with a package of reforms that reduced the size of his Cabinet, and eliminated the three vice presidencies and the three deputy prime minister posts. He has also ordered a revision of the government's pay scale and the annulment of financial perks enjoyed by senior officials, lawmakers and consultants.

His actions raised questions about the legality of his reforms and whether they violate the constitution.

"I will not back down," al-Abadi vowed in televised comments this week. "There is no going back on reforms. Our political system needs popular pressure to reform itself," said the Shiite prime minister who has said he would seek a popular mandate to amend the constitution, which he described as "incomplete."

Separately, an explosion on Friday ripped through the parking lot of a police station in southeast Baghdad when a police bomb squad tried to defuse a car bomb while colleagues looked on, killing six and wounding 10, according to security and hospital officials.

The six killed were three bomb squad members and three policemen.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Baghdad has for years seen near daily attacks targeting civilians and security forces by car bombs, suicide attacks and roadside explosions. The attacks are mostly blamed on Sunni militants.

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