Iraq's top Shiite cleric calls for high voter turnout

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s top Shiite cleric called Wednesday for wide participation in next month’s parliament elections, saying that despite “shortcomings,” voting remains the best way for Iraqis to take part in shaping their country’s future.

Iraqis are headed to the polls Oct. 10 for early elections characterized by widespread apathy and concerns of low voter turnout. The elections are being held a year before they had been scheduled to take place in line with a key demand of protesters who filled the streets in October 2019 demanding change in the country, where corruption is widespread.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful religious authority, was a strong backer of early elections at the time, calling it “the right and peaceful” path to getting out of the political, economic, security and health problems Iraq faces.

Al-Sistani said elections must be held away from external interferences and conducted in a “reassuring atmosphere” far from the influence of money and illegal weapons — an apparent reference to powerful Iranian-backed militias who maintain strong influence over Iraq.

In a statement released by his office Wednesday, al-Sistani encouraged all eligible Iraqis to participate “consciously and responsibly in the upcoming elections, although it is not without some shortcomings.”

He said Iraqis must take advantage of this important opportunity to shape their country’s future and “bring about a real change in the administration of the state and remove corrupt and incompetent hands.”

“Make a good choice, otherwise the failures of the previous parliaments and the governments emanating from them will be repeated,” he said, in rare, blunt criticism of previous administrations.