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Sep 4, 9:40 AM EDT

Iraq's top cleric demands real steps in fighting corruption



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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's top Shiite cleric said on Friday the government must start hunting the "big heads" as part of its anti-corruption drive, calling for "convincing and assuring steps" as proof of the government's seriousness in implementing its highly-touted reform plan.

Last month, Iraq's Shiite-led government announced a package of reforms following large rallies in Baghdad and other provinces protesting endemic corruption, sectarian politics and shabby basic services. Graft is widely believed to be rampant in Iraq, and estimates based on findings from an anti-corruption commission and government reports show hundreds of millions of dollars have gone missing in the 12 years since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's plan, which included eliminating the country's three vice presidencies and three deputy prime ministers as well as other posts, was immediately approved by parliament. But changes widely demanded by Iraqis have not yet materialized, such as trials for corrupt officials, economic reforms and infrastructure improvements.

"One of the essential steps for reform is to hunt the big heads among the corrupt and hold them accountable, to retrieve all the stolen money," Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in remarks delivered through a representative during the Friday sermon in the revered Shiite city of Karbala.

People "have long suffered from corruption" and they want "this mission to be implemented without procrastination and delay," said the representative, sheik 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.

Al-Sistani's remarks came hours before weekly Friday rallies in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Authorities blocked roads leading to Baghdad's central Tahrir Square with barbed wire and military vehicles, deploying security forces to keep away protesters.

Also Friday, a police officer said militants broke into a house of an anti-militant, pro-government Sunni tribal fighter in Baghdad's southern suburb of Arab Jabour, killing him, his wife and two children. Another officer said three civilians were killed and six wounded when a bomb went off in a commercial area in the town of Madain, just south of Baghdad.

Two medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

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Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Murtada Faraj in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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