BAGHDAD: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced pressure to step down Friday, as the country’s most influential Shiite figure and the foreign minister criticized his handling of the recent jihadist offensive.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani appealed to Iraqi politicians not to make themselves “an obstacle” in the country’s transition as the deadline looms for selecting the next prime minister. The remarks, delivered by his spokesman, were another indirect appeal to Maliki to step down.
“The big challenges facing Iraq require that the next government command national and broad acceptance ... to face the crises that are hitting the country,” spokesman Ahmed al-Safi quoted the reclusive al-Sistani as saying.
“No one should make himself an obstacle in achieving national consensus,” Safi added during the sermon in the Shiite city of Kabala.
Maliki, who has led the country since 2006, has insisted he remain in the post for a third four-year term. His bloc got the most seats in April’s parliamentary elections but failed to get a majority, so he needs to build a coalition in order to govern.
The next government is expected to grapple with an unprecedented blitz offensive by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS), which in June seized a large chunk of the country’s north and west.
Iraq’s leaders are under pressure to form an inclusive government that can draw Sunni support away from the insurgency.
Iraq’s newly elected president, Fouad Massoum, is required to select a prime minister from the largest political bloc by next Friday.
Sistani’s appeal came as Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Maliki and his security officials were to blame for the rise of ISIS.
“Surely the man who is responsible for the general policies bears the responsibility and the general commander of the armed forces, the ministers of defense and interior also bear these responsibilities,” Zebari told Al-Arabiya television.
“There are other sides who bear responsibility, maybe political partners, but the biggest and greatest responsibility is on the person in charge of public policies.”
In violence Friday, at least 17 soldiers were killed in a fierce battle against jihadists south of Baghdad, while bombs in and around the capital left another 16 people dead.
The clashes took place in Jurf al-Sakhr, a small town on a road linking ISIS strongholds in the west to Shiite holy cities south of Baghdad.
“Seventeen soldiers were killed and three wounded during clashes with insurgents in Jurf al-Sakhr that lasted two hours this morning,” an army lieutenant told AFP.
An army medic confirmed the death toll, with both sources saying 23 jihadists from ISIS were also killed.
The mainly Sunni town, which lies in the north of Babil province, is the scene of almost daily fighting between pro-government forces and Sunni militants.
Jurf al-Sakhr lies on the edge of what became known during a previous wave of sectarian bloodshed eight years ago as the “triangle of death.”
The loss of Jurf al-Sakhr would threaten government control over one of only two main roads linking Baghdad to the southern Shiite heartland, including the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.
In the capital, a car bomb tore through a busy commercial street in the eastern Habibiya neighborhood, killing seven people and wounding 16. And in the nearby al-Khulani Square in central Baghdad, three bombs exploded almost simultaneously, killing four people and wounding 12, according to police and hospital officials.
In Haditha, a town in Anbar near a strategic dam, fighters with ISIS launched a three-prong assault Friday, using a suicide oil tanker and trucks. The militants briefly took over an army command headquarters in the town, but the military was able to retake it, an army official said. Ten soldiers were killed in the clashes.
The United Nations said that more than 1,737 people were killed in Iraq in July, making it one of the deadliest months of the year but marking a decline from the previous month. The death toll in June stood at 2,400.
The U.N. mission also reiterated its own calls on Iraq’s feuding politicians to set aside their differences and form an inclusive government.
“It is time that they move forward on the creation of a new government that can address the root causes of violence in Iraq and ensure equitable development for all communities,” Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special representative for Iraq, said in the statement Friday.
ISIS has also destroyed ancient shrines and mosques in Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, claiming they stray from hard-line Islamic practices and instead promote apostasy. Sistani denounced the targeting of holy sites Friday, saying the extremists were “alienating themselves from the humane, Islamic standards.”