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Iraq's top Shiite cleric urges government to step up support for Shiite militias fighting IS

  • Shiite militiamen prepare to attack Islamic State extremists at Camp Speicher, the front line in Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 12, 2015. Rockets and mortars echoed across Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Thursday as Iraqi security forces clashed with Islamic State militants a day after sweeping into the Sunni city north of Baghdad. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

    Shiite militiamen prepare to attack Islamic State extremists at Camp Speicher, the front line in Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 12, 2015. Rockets and mortars echoed across Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Thursday as Iraqi security forces clashed with Islamic State militants a day after sweeping into the Sunni city north of Baghdad. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)  (The Associated Press)

  • A Shiite militiaman returnes from a battle against Islamic State extremists at Camp Speicher, the front line in Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 12, 2015. Rockets and mortars echoed across Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Thursday as Iraqi security forces clashed with Islamic State militants a day after sweeping into the Sunni city north of Baghdad. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

    A Shiite militiaman returnes from a battle against Islamic State extremists at Camp Speicher, the front line in Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 12, 2015. Rockets and mortars echoed across Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit on Thursday as Iraqi security forces clashed with Islamic State militants a day after sweeping into the Sunni city north of Baghdad. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)  (The Associated Press)

  • Members of an Iraqi Shiite militant group called Soldiers of Imam Ali Brigades prepare to launch rockets against Islamic State extremists' positions in Qadisiyya neighborhood in Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 13, 2015. Iraqi forces entered Tikrit for the first time on Wednesday from the north and south. On Friday, they fought fierce battles to secure the northern Tikrit neighborhood of Qadisiyya and lobbed mortars and rockets into the city center, still in the hands of IS. Iraqi military officials have said they expect to reach the center of Tikrit within two to three days. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

    Members of an Iraqi Shiite militant group called Soldiers of Imam Ali Brigades prepare to launch rockets against Islamic State extremists' positions in Qadisiyya neighborhood in Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, March 13, 2015. Iraqi forces entered Tikrit for the first time on Wednesday from the north and south. On Friday, they fought fierce battles to secure the northern Tikrit neighborhood of Qadisiyya and lobbed mortars and rockets into the city center, still in the hands of IS. Iraqi military officials have said they expect to reach the center of Tikrit within two to three days. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)  (The Associated Press)

Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric has urged the government to step up support for the Shiite militias battling the Islamic State group alongside the Iraqi military.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's comments, relayed by a representative during Friday prayers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, come as Iraqi forces backed by the militias are carrying out a large-scale offensive to retake IS-held Sunni city of Tikrit.

Al-Sistani's spokesman Ahmed al-Safi also urged authorities to pay outstanding salaries to many Shiite militiamen, adding that such delays were "unacceptable."

The Iranian-backed Shiite militias have played a crucial role in regaining territory from the Islamic State group, supporting Iraq's embattled military and police forces in battle. U.S. officials estimate that as many as 20,000 militiamen may be involved in the ongoing Tikrit operations.