Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani on Sunday backed the government’s call to hold early elections, a key demand of protesters, after a meeting with the UN envoy to the country.
"The parliamentary elections scheduled for next year are of great importance," Mr Al Sistani, 90, said after the meeting.
Iraqis should be encouraged to participate, he said, and failing to hold the polls on time or in a free and fair way would "threaten the unity and future of Iraq's people".
Mr Al Sistani said the vote should be held under conditions that give them credibility so people are encouraged to take part.
Iraqi President Barham Salih endorsed his backing for early elections, saying they are critical for the country's future.
Mr Salih said the elections must be free and fair.
Mr Al Sistani's comments came after a meeting with the UN’s representative, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.
It was his first public face-to-face meeting with a foreign official since the outbreak of coronavirus in Iraq.
Iraq has been hit hard by the pandemic, recording more than 290,000 confirmed cases and more than 8,000 deaths.
Mr Al Sistani does not make public appearances and typically issues a weekly Friday sermon through a representative.
He is Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric and has given significant support to the country’s protest movement.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi pledged to hold early elections next June as part of his government plan when assuming office in May.
They were originally scheduled to take place in May, 2022.
Protesters have been holding mass demonstrations since October, demanding change in the country.
A new government will be formed by the politician who secures the most support from parliamentary blocs after the elections.
“Early elections are not a goal in themselves but rather the correct peaceful path out of the current impasse that the country is suffering as a result of the accumulation of its political, economic, security, health, service and other crises,” Mr Ali Sistani said.
He urged the government to investigate major cases of corruption and to “seriously work to reveal all those who committed criminal acts that killed and wounded protesters and security forces".
Almost 600 protesters were killed by security forces at the height of the anti-government protests.
Mr Al Kadhimi pledged to investigate their deaths and hold the perpetrators to account.