TEHRAN (Press Shia Agency) – Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani threw his support behind the prime minister’s announcement that parliamentary elections be held ahead of schedule next year, saying the timing should not serve the interests of political groups.

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Ayatollah Sistani’s comments came in a statement released by his office after a meeting with the UN envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.

Sunday’s meeting was the first public face-to-face between Ayatollah Sistani and a foreign official since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Iraq earlier this year.

It is also the first such meeting since Ayatollah Sistani, 90, underwent surgery for a fractured bone in January.

In August, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said parliamentary elections would be held in June, nearly a year before they had been scheduled to take place. Early elections have been a key demand of protesters, who have been holding mass demonstrations since October demanding change in the country, where corruption is widespread.

A new government will be formed by the politician who secures the most support from parliamentary blocs after the elections.

“Parliamentary elections scheduled for next year are very important,” said the top cleric, AP reported.

He said the vote should be held under fair conditions that give them credibility so that people are encouraged to participate.

The cleric said early elections are “the right and peaceful” path to getting out of the current host of political, economic, security and health problems Iraq faces.

He warned that delays in holding the elections in a free and fair manner “will lead to deepening the country’s problems and reaching, God forbid, a point that would threaten its unity and the future of its people.”

He also called on the government to investigate major cases of corruption in the country and “to seriously work to reveal all those who committed criminal acts that killed and wounded protesters and security forces.”