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Top Shiite cleric calls for new government in Iraq

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Iraqi men check in at the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents. (Karim Kadim/The Associated Press)

Iraqi men check in at the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents. (Karim Kadim/The Associated Press)

BAGHDAD – The spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite majority called for a new, “effective” government Friday, increasing pressure on the country’s prime minister a day after U.S. President Barack Obama challenged him to create a more inclusive leadership or risk a sectarian civil war.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments at Friday prayers contained thinly veiled criticism that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in office since 2006, was to blame for the nation’s crisis over the blitz by Sunni insurgents led by an al-Qaida splinter group that seeks to create a new state spanning parts of Iraq and Syria and ruled by its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Al-Sistani’s remarks come as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to Iraq soon to press its government to share more power.

AL MALIKI: Critiized by leading Shiite cleric

AL-MALIKI: Criticized by leading Shiite cleric

While al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc won the most seats in parliament in Iraq’s April 30 election, his hopes for a third term are now in doubt with rivals challenging him from within the broader Shiite alliance. In order to govern, his bloc must first form a coalition with other parties.

And with Iraq asking the U.S. for airstrikes to temper the militants’ advance – especially as the insurgents were said to be preparing Friday for another assault on the country’s biggest oil refinery – al-Maliki appears increasingly vulnerable.

“It is necessary for the winning political blocs to start a dialogue that yields an effective government that enjoys broad national support, avoids past mistakes and opens new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis,” al-Sistani said in a message delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.

The Iranian-born al-Sistani, who is believed to be 86, lives in the Shiite holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad. A recluse, he rarely ventures out of his home and does not give interviews. Iraq’s majority Shiites deeply revere him, and a call to arms he made last week prompted thousands of Shiites to volunteer to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which was once part of al-Qaida.

Al-Sistani’s call to arms has given the fight against the Islamic State militants the feel of a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis. His office in Najaf dismissed that charge, and al-Safi on Friday said: “The call for volunteers targeted Iraqis from all groups and sects. … It did not have a sectarian basis and cannot be.”

Al-Maliki has been seeking to place the blame for the chaos on the Islamic State and not his perceived exclusion of the Sunnis.

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