Monday, September 1, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Iraq's top cleric increases pressure on Maliki

BAGHDAD - The most respected voice for Iraq's Shiite majority on Friday joined calls for the country's prime minister to form an inclusive government or step aside, a day after President Obama challenged Nouri al-Maliki to create a leadership representative of all Iraqis.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's thinly veiled reproach was the most influential to place blame on the Shiite prime minister for the nation's spiraling crisis.

The focus on the need to replace Maliki comes as Iraq faces its worst crisis since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. Over the last two weeks, Iraq has lost a big chunk of the north to the al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, whose lightning offensive led to the capture of Mosul, the nation's second-largest city.

The gravity of the crisis has forced the usually reclusive Sistani, who normally stays above the political fray, to wade into politics, and his comments, delivered through a representative, could ultimately seal Maliki's fate.

Calling for a dialogue between the political coalitions that won seats in the April 30 parliamentary election, Sistani said it was imperative that they form "an effective government that enjoys broad national support, avoids past mistakes, and opens new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis."

Deeply revered by Iraq's majority Shiites, Sistani could force Maliki, who emerged from relative obscurity in 2006 to lead the country, to step down.

On Thursday, Obama stopped short of calling for Maliki to resign, but his carefully worded comments did all but that. "Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis," Obama declared.

The Iranian-born Sistani, believed to be 86, lives in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, where he rarely ventures out of his modest house on a narrow alley and does not give media interviews. His call to arms last week prompted thousands of Shiites to volunteer to fight against the Sunni militants who now control a large swath of territory astride both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

The extent of Sistani's influence was manifested in the years following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq when he forced Washington to modify its blueprint for the country and agree to the election of a constituent assembly that drafted the nation's constitution.

For the last two years, he has shunned politicians of all sects, refusing to receive any of them to show his disillusionment with the way they run the country. However, the danger posed by the Islamic State militants appears to have forced him to say more.

His call to arms has given the fight against the Sunni insurgents the feel of a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis. His office in Najaf dismissed that assertion, with his representative, Ahmed al-Safi, saying Friday: "The call for volunteers targeted Iraqis from all groups and sects. . . . It did not have a sectarian basis and cannot be."

Maliki's State of Law bloc won the most seats in the April vote, but his hopes to retain his job are in doubt with rivals challenging him from within the broader Shiite alliance. In order to govern, his bloc must first form a majority coalition in the new 328-seat legislature, which must meet by June 30.

If Maliki were to relinquish his post now, according to the constitution, the president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, would assume the job until a new prime minister is elected. But the ailing Talabani has been in Germany for treatment since 2012, so his deputy, Khudeir al-Khuzaie, a Shiite, would step in for him.

Maliki's Shiite-led government long has faced criticism of discriminating against Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish populations. But it is his perceived marginalization of the once-dominant Sunnis that sparked violence reminiscent of Iraq's darkest years of sectarian warfare in 2006 and 2007.

Shiite politicians familiar with the secretive efforts to remove Maliki said two names mentioned as replacements are former Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite and French-educated economist, and Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as Iraq's first prime minister after Saddam Hussein's ouster. Others include Ahmad Chalabi, a onetime Washington favorite to lead Iraq, and Bayan Jabr, another Shiite who served as finance and interior minister.

Hamza Hendawi Associated Press
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