In a statement read out by his representative Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalaei during a sermon in the holy city of Karbala on Friday, Ayatollah Sistani held security forces accountable for any violent escalation, and urged the Baghdad government to respond as quickly as possible to demonstrators' demands, Presstv Reported.
“Peacefulness of protests in their various forms should be paid a great attention. The biggest responsibility is on the security forces. They must avoid using excessive force with peaceful protesters,” the revered cleric said.
Ayatollah Sistani also said there should be “no more procrastination.”
“The political apparatus has a unique opportunity to respond to citizens' demands with an agreed roadmap,” he said in the sermon read out by his representative.
Protesters in Iraq have directed their rage at a class of elite leaders, whom they accuse of pillaging the oil-rich country's wealth while the population grows poorer.
The protests, which began more than a month ago, have often turned violent, with security forces opening fire and protesters torching government buildings.
Last week, President Barham Salih said Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was willing to resign once political leaders agreed on a replacement. He also called for a new election law and said he would approve early parliamentary polls once it was enacted.
But as the protest movement has dragged on, top leaders meeting in Baghdad, the holy city of Najaf and Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, appear to have reached a consensus over the premier staying in power.
Senior cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who had been supporting the protests and had demanded the government resign, has gone silent as well.
On Thursday, state-run al-Iraqiya television network aired a recorded address by Abdel Mahdi to cabinet ministers in which he discussed the 2020 budget.
The embattled Iraqi prime minister has proposed a series of reforms to appease protesters, including hiring new civil servants, raising welfare and launching infrastructure projects.