BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi'ite paramilitary groups who took part in the war against Islamic State militants should be incorporated into state security bodies, the nation's top Shi'ite cleric said.
In a message delivered at the Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala through one of his representatives, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said all weapons used in fighting the insurgents should be brought under the control of the Iraqi government.
Sistani's position is in line with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who wants to prevent the commanders of the militias known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PFM) from using the power and clout acquired during the war in elections due on May 12.
Sistani was the author of a landmark fatwa, or religious decree, which urged Iraqis to volunteer for the war on Islamic State after the government's armed forces collapsed in 2014 as the militants swept through swathes of Iraq to reach the gates of Baghdad.
"The victory over Daesh doesn't mean the end of the battle with terrorism," Sistani's representative Sheikh Abdulmehdi al-Karbalai said, mentioning the existence of "sleeper cells".
"The security apparatus should be supported by the fighters who took part in the war on Daesh," he added in the sermon broadcast on state TV, using an Arab acronym for Islamic State.
"It is necessary to absorb the fighters in the official and constitutional structures."
Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish politicians have called on Abadi, who declared victory over Islamic State last week, to disarm the PMF, which they say are responsible for widespread abuses and in effect report to Tehran, not the government in Baghdad.
Two of the most important Iranian-backed paramilitary leaders, Hadi al-Amiri and Qais al-Khazali, announced this week they were putting their militias under Abadi's orders.
Their decision to formally separate their armed and political wings could pave the way for them to contest the elections, possibly as part of a broader alliance close to Iran.
Iran provided training and supplied weapons to the most powerful PMF groups including Amiri's Badr Organisation and Khazali's Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
The Iraqi parliament last year voted a law that established the PMF as a separate military corps that reports to Abadi in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli, Editing by William Maclean; editing by John Stonestreet and William Maclean)