KARBALA - Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday opposed calls to disband a controversial paramilitary force which was instrumental in defeating the Islamic State group in the country.
Iraq is "always in desperate need of heroic men who have backed up the army and federal police and who fought alongside them on different fronts", said Abdel Mahdi al-Karabalai, the ayatollah's representative.
"We need to continue to benefit from this important source of energy, within the constitution and judicial framework," he said in a sermon at weekly prayers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, south of the capital.
Karabalai stressed that the Hashed al-Shaabi's arms belonged to the state and its mission was to defend national security.
The force was established in 2014 after Sistani urged Iraqi citizens to take up arms against IS jihadists who had swept aside government forces and seized control of much of northern Iraq.
But the Hashed, a Shiite-dominated alliance, remains deeply divisive and has been accused of a string of abuses.
Known in English as the Popular Mobilisation Units, the various forces within the Hashed can field a total of between 60,000 and 140,000 fighters.
Iraq's parliament has classed it as a state force operating within the constitution.
Calls have been growing from the West for the Hashed to disband, with French President Emmanuel Macron proposing "a gradual demilitarisation" of the group and for all militias in Iraq to be "dismantled".
But Hashed spokesman Ahmad al-Assadi, who is also a member of parliament, said on Friday that Sistani had stood up for the units to be retained as part of Iraq's security system.
The Hashed suffered 7,637 dead and 21,300 wounded in the three-year war to drive out IS, according to a top Hashed commander, Qais Khazali.