BAGHDAD: Iraq’s senior preacher Friday urged political leaders to refrain from clinging to their posts – an apparent reference to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has defied demands that he step aside.
Speaking through an aide who delivered a sermon after Friday prayers in the city of Karbala, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said leaders should show flexibility so that political deadlocks could be broken and Iraq could confront militants.
Last month, ISIS militants spearheaded an offensive that swept through northern and western Iraq, posing the biggest challenge to Maliki’s government since the departure of U.S. forces in 2011.
Critics say Maliki is a divisive figure whose alienation of Sunnis has fueled sectarian hatred and played into the hands of the insurgents, who have threatened to march on Baghdad. Sistani said it is time for politicians to think of Iraq’s interests, not their own.
“The sensitivity of this phase necessitates that all the parties concerned should have a spirit of national responsibility that requires the practice of the principle of sacrifice and self-denial and not to cling to positions and posts.”
Maliki has ruled since an election in April in a caretaker capacity, dismissing demands from Sunnis and Kurds that he step aside for a less polarizing figure, and even some Shiites oppose his bid for a third term.
Iraq’s parliament elected senior Kurdish lawmaker Fouad Masoum as president Thursday, a long-awaited step in creating a new government capable of countering the insurgency.
Sistani’s call for flexibility could hasten Maliki’s departure as the religious scholar is seen as a voice of reason in the divided country. A recluse who favors a behind-the-scenes role, he has called for Iraqis to take up arms against the Sunni insurgency.
Earlier in the week, senior politicians said Maliki rejected the latest attempt, made by Iran, to persuade him to step down. A recent meeting between Maliki and Iran’s point man in Iraq, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, was the first sign that Iran also believed he should go, they said.
The two politicians told The Associated Press that during a recent meeting in Baghdad, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s point man in Iraq, tried to persuade Maliki to drop his bid to stay in office. Maliki refused, arguing that his political bloc won the largest number of parliament seats in April elections, giving him the right to form the next government, said the politicians, both senior figures in Shiite factions. One of them attended the meeting and the other said he was briefed about it later.
The two said Soleimani was “taken aback” by Maliki’s refusal, but did not further elaborate.
Elsewhere, a series of blasts outside Shiite prayer halls killed four people and wounded 19 others in the northern city of Kirkuk, police and medical sources said.
The deadliest blast took place in a car park outside the Mustafa prayer hall, or husseiniya, in the city’s southwest, where a car bomb killed four worshippers and wounded 15 others after they had finished prayers.
Three roadside bombs near the Zahraa husseiniya in west Kirkuk wounded four people, while a roadside bomb near the Jaafar al-Sadeq husseiniya in the city’s south caused no casualties.
Iraq this week reached out to Russia in a bid to secure weapons it says are needed to stem the insurgent offensive, while in Washington, U.S. lawmakers Friday overwhelmingly passed a resolution barring President Barack Obama from sending forces to Iraq in a “sustained combat role” without congressional approval.
The measure still must pass the Senate to force a showdown with the president. More than 800 U.S. forces are in Iraq, with more than half providing security for the embassy and U.S. personnel.