Cleric's call piles pressure on Iraqi leader amid crisis
The spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority has called for the creation of an "effective" new Government, increasing pressure on the country's premier as an offensive by Sunni militants rages on.
The call by grand ayatollah Ali al-Sistani contained thinly veiled criticisms that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in office since 2006, was to blame for the nation's crisis over the blitz by al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
Mr al-Sistani's message was delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the holy city of Karbala. He said the future Government "should open new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis".
Mr al-Maliki's Shiite-led administration has faced criticism over discrimination against Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish populations, and the US has challenged him to create a more inclusive Government or risk all-out sectarian war.
While Mr al-Maliki's State of Law bloc won the most seats in parliament in Iraq's April 30 election, he now faces opponents bolstered by an intervention by US President Barack Obama.
Mr al-Sistani's message said: "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."
The Iranian-born cleric lives in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. A recluse, he rarely ventures out of his home and does not give interviews.
Iraq's Shiites deeply revere him and a call to arms he made last week prompted thousands of Shiites to volunteer to fight against Isis militants, whose forces continued to press closer to Baghdad.