BAGHDAD: Wading into the debate over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political future, Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric on Friday urged lawmakers to form “an effective government” that would lead the country out of its gravest crisis since the departure of U.S. troops in 2011.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said political parties must create a government “that enjoys broad national acceptance [and] that reverses past mistakes,” a veiled rebuke of al-Maliki, a Shiite hard-liner whose marginalization of minority Sunni Muslims has stoked an insurgency that has driven government forces out of much of northern and western Iraq.
Al-Sistani did not call for al-Maliki to step down. However, he said a new government, to be formed after a court this week certified the results of April parliamentary elections, must be inclusive.
“We call on the politicians to put all Iraqis on the same level, to stand against” the insurgents, al-Sistani said in his weekly Friday sermon, read by an aide and broadcast from the holy city of Karbala. He referred to the insurgents as “apostates.”
The comments by Iraq’s most influential religious leader were the latest sign of pressure on al-Maliki, who has shown no indication of giving up an office he has held for eight years. President Barack Obama on Thursday urged the prime minister to make serious concessions to his political rivals, including Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds, even as the American leader pledged to dispatch as many as 300 military advisers to support al-Maliki’s armed forces.
U.S. officials have also begun meeting privately with al-Maliki opponents in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, in a sign that the Obama administration may be looking for ways to promote a new prime minister.
Al-Sistani also sought to clarify his remarks last week that called on Iraqis to take up arms against the insurgents, who have been led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, an al-Qaida splinter group.
Thousands of mainly Shiite volunteers rushed to training camps in Baghdad and other cities after al-Sistani’s comments on June 13, provoking fear, particularly among minority Sunnis, of a return to the sectarian civil war that ripped through Iraq after the invasion led by the United States in 2003.
After a spate of sectarian killings around Baghdad in recent days, al-Sistani said that his call for volunteer fighters was “directed to all the citizens, without being specific to one sect to the exclusion of another,” and that the volunteers must work alongside the armed forces, a nod to the private sectarian militias that terrorized Baghdad during the civil war.