BAGHDAD / NAJAF, Iraq: The removal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would be an “important part” of the solution to Iraq’s political crisis, a spokesman for one of the country’s top Shiite clerics said.
The statement is the first from any of Iraq’s revered Shiite religious leaders to endorse Maliki’s ouster, and is one of a string of recent announcements indicating a more active national role for the usually taciturn clergy.
The speedy formation of a new more inclusive government is seen as a crucial step in countering an insurrection that was given a dramatic push last month by ISIS militants, who have exploited resentment against the Maliki government.
“That’s part of the solution. An important part,” said Sheikh Ali al-Najafi, spokesman for his father Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, referring to Maliki’s stepping aside.
“This is the point of view of the marja al-Najafi,” he said, a “marja” being one of Iraq’s four most senior Shiite religious leaders.
The most senior, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, through a spokesman has already called for the “formation an effective government that is acceptable on a ... national level (and) avoids past mistakes”.
The June 20 statement stopped short of calling for Maliki to step down, but was nonetheless an implicit rebuke for a leader seen by many as sectarian and divisive.
Maliki has vowed to seek a third term after his coalition dominated April elections but Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities, and even some fellow Shiites, have demanded his replacement.
Sistani had earlier issued a call to arms against ISIS insurgents, the first such fatwa for jihad by the senior Shiite religious scholars in Iraq for more than 90 years, despite decades of war and bloodshed.
“Now the [senior religious scholars] see a real sustained danger for Iraq, and that Iraq could collapse within hours or days, and needs a stand from all its people to protect the unity of the country,” Najafi said, speaking in the city of Najaf.
Iraq was almost torn apart in 2006 and 2007 when the bombing of the Al-Askari Shiite shrine north of Baghdad triggered a wave of sectarian slaughter between Shiite militias and Al-Qaeda allied Sunni militants.
“The size and type of battle is different this time. The number of fighters is different. ISIS is different from Al-Qaeda,” Najafi said.
“It’s something more developed than Al-Qaeda; strength-wise, coordination-wise, organization-wise, funding-wise. It’s different from before.”
In the past, senior Shiite religious figures have been circumspect and remained aloof from Iraq’s graft-ridden and dysfunctional political arena.
But things have changed, Najafi said, hinting at more muscular clerical interventions to come. “When there’s a problem, it’s up to the father to address this problem ... the [spiritual authority] is the father.”
The senior figures, Najafi continued, would likely continue to weigh in on the political issues of the day during times of crisis.
“With the crises, that we hope won’t continue, it is expected there will be continued advice.”
Meanwhile, government forces withdrew from the militant-held city of Tikrit after their new offensive met heavy resistance, in a blow to the government effort to push back Sunni insurgents controlling large parts of the country.
The failure highlights the difficulties of Baghdad’s struggle to recapture territory from the insurgents who seized Mosul, Tikrit and other cities last month in a rapid offensive which threatens to fragment Iraq on ethnic and sectarian lines.
Government troops and allied Shiite volunteer fighters retreated from Tikrit before sunset on Tuesday to a base 4 km south after coming under heavy mortar and sniper fire, a soldier who fought in the battle said.
Residents said there was no fighting on Wednesday morning in Tikrit, which lies 160 km north of Baghdad. It is a stronghold of ex-army officers and loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party who allied themselves with the ISIS-led offensive last month.
Tuesday’s military attack was launched from Awja, Saddam’s birthplace some 8 km south of the city, but ran into heavy opposition in the southern part of the city.
Pictures published on Twitter by supporters of ISIS showed a fighter holding a black Islamist flag next to a black armored car it said had been abandoned by a military SWAT team, as well as vehicles painted in desert camouflage – one of them burnt out – which it said retreating troops left behind.