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.
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.