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Iraq's Shiite cleric urges protection for Fallujah residents

  • Protesters run from tear gas fired by security forces in central Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 26, 2016. Thousands of protesters including followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets and rallied calling for comprehensive reforms and a new technocrat reshuffle. Dozens of demonstrators suffered from tear gas inhalation.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

    Protesters run from tear gas fired by security forces in central Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 26, 2016. Thousands of protesters including followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets and rallied calling for comprehensive reforms and a new technocrat reshuffle. Dozens of demonstrators suffered from tear gas inhalation.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)  (The Associated Press)

  • A woman protester is assisted after reacting to tear gas fired by security forces in central Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 27, 2016. Thousands of protesters including followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets and rallied calling for comprehensive reforms and a new technocrat reshuffle. Dozens of demonstrators suffered from tear gas inhalation.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

    A woman protester is assisted after reacting to tear gas fired by security forces in central Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 27, 2016. Thousands of protesters including followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets and rallied calling for comprehensive reforms and a new technocrat reshuffle. Dozens of demonstrators suffered from tear gas inhalation.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)  (The Associated Press)

  • A woman protester is assisted after reacting to tear gas fired by security forces in central Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 27, 2016. Thousands of protesters including followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets and rallied calling for comprehensive reforms and a new technocrat reshuffle. Dozens of demonstrators suffered from tear gas inhalation.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

    A woman protester is assisted after reacting to tear gas fired by security forces in central Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, May 27, 2016. Thousands of protesters including followers of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets and rallied calling for comprehensive reforms and a new technocrat reshuffle. Dozens of demonstrators suffered from tear gas inhalation.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)  (The Associated Press)

The spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites has called on Iraqi forces battling to retake the city of Fallujah from Islamic State militants to protect civilians trapped there.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani says that "saving innocent people from harm's way is the most important thing, even more so than targeting the enemy."

His comments were delivered at Friday prayers by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the holy city of Karbala.

Earlier this week, Iraqi forces launched the offensive on Fallujah. The city is located 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad.

Rights groups have expressed concerns for the tens of thousands of civilians estimated to still be in the city, which has been in IS hands for more than two years.