Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who holds significant power over Shiite public opinion, said Baghdad could no longer "procrastinate" in replying to protesters. More than 260 people have been killed at demonstrations.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in Baghdad and the Shiite south on Friday, as the country's most senior Shiite spiritual leader called on the government to meet protesters' demands.
A monthlong protest movement, driven by discontent over corruption and economic hardship, has morphed into calls for wholesale political change and the government to resign.
Read more: What's behind the protests in Iraq?
Since October 1, more than 260 protesters have been killed and thousands more injured by police, security forces and militia.
Six protesters were killed by masked gunmen in the oil-rich city of Basra on Thursday.
The harsh response to the protests, some of which have been peaceful while others were violent, has only fuelled public anger against the government. In an unsuccessful bid to quell the protests, the government has proposed hiring more people in the bloated public sector, expanding social welfare programs and holding early elections once a new voting law is passed.
Top Shiite cleric weighs in
In his Friday sermon, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 88-year-old spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiites whose words hold sway over public opinion, called on security forces to avoid violence and the government to meet protesters' demands.
"The political powers ... have a unique opportunity to respond to people's demands, according to an agreed-upon roadmap, that should be implemented in a specific period to put an end to a long period of corruption," said Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalaie, al-Sistani's representative. "It is no longer permissible to procrastinate on this issue because of the great risks facing the country."
Sistani, who outside of times of crisis maintains distance from politics and is considered a proponent of an independent Iraq, said protesters should avoid violence and it was the responsibility of security forces to maintain the peace.
"The biggest responsibility is on the security forces," he said in the sermon in the holy city of Karbala. "They must avoid using excessive force with peaceful protesters."
He also warned the protesters against being exploited by "internal and external forces" that seek to destabilize Iraq. It was unclear exactly what forces he meant.
Protesters have also rejected foreign interference in Iraq, which is caught between its two main allies and rivals, the United States and Iran.
Iran's influence in the country has drawn the ire of protesters across sectarian lines, who have attacked symbols of Iran's clerical leadership and Iran's consulate in Karbala.
Highlighting Iran's sway, Qassem Soleimani, the powerful general of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps elite Quds force, flew to Baghdad during the protests to intervene in order to ensure an influential Shiite political party did not abandon Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
A member of the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Moblization Units, carries a picture of Sistani during victory celebrations in December 2017 after Iraq declared the "Islamic State" defeated.
Sistani, who had called on Shiite militia known as Hashed al-Shaab to be formed to fight the "Islamic State," said no one should criticize the fighters who sacrificed their lives for the country. A number of these militia groups are close to Iran and have been involved in violence against protesters.
"If peaceful protests and strikes are possible today away from the terrorists' harm, it is thanks to those heroic men," his representative said.
cw/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)