Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, warned on Thursday that the country faces dire consequences including possible "partition" if real reform is not carried out.
Sistani, who is revered by millions, has made multiple calls for reform measures this month that have helped spur a wide-ranging anti-corruption drive by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
"Today, if true reform is not realised by fighting corruption without mercy and realising social justice on different levels, it is expected that circumstances will become worse than before," Sistani said in a written statement from his office in response to questions from AFP.
Iraq could be "dragged to... partition and the like, God forbid," he said.
It was Sistani's most direct warning yet on the possible consequences if reforms he has advocated are not carried out.
Corruption in Iraq has already cost the country dearly in the war against the Islamic State jihadist group, which overran around a third of the country last year, Sistani said.
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Without rampant corruption, especially in the security forces, and abuse of power by top officials, "the Daesh terrorist organisation would not have been able to control a large part of the territory of Iraq," he said, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.
Amid a major heatwave that has seen temperatures top 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit), protesters have railed against the poor quality of services, especially power outages that leave just a few hours of government-supplied electricity per day.
Thousands of people have turned out in Baghdad and cities in the Shiite south to vent their anger and pressure the authorities to make changes.
Their demands were given a boost when Sistani called on August 7 for Abadi to take "drastic measures" against corruption, saying the "minor steps" he had announced fell short.
The following Friday, Sistani said judicial reforms were needed, and Abadi responded by calling on the judiciary to carry out measures to ensure its independence and allow it to fight corruption.
Calls for change by Sistani have shielded as well as influenced Abadi's efforts, as it is politically risky for rival Shiite politicians to publicly oppose measures called for by the top cleric.
But even with popular support and Sistani's backing, the entrenched nature of corruption and the fact parties across the political spectrum benefit from it will make any efforts extremely difficult.