Iraq's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged political leaders on Friday not to "cling" to power, in a seeming reference to the country's divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is facing calls to step down.
Sistani made the call in a statement read by his spokesperson during Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, located about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
"The gravity of the phase Iraq is undergoing requires the concerned parties to bear their national responsibilities, which require sacrifice and not to cling to posts," the cleric said, according to the Associated Press.
Iraq's security situation has deteriorated rapidly since hardline Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now known as Islamic State, overran large swathes of northern Iraq in June. However, the country's leaders have been mired in political deadlock since April elections and struggled to form a new government to mount a cohesive response.
Maliki, a Shiite, currently remains in his post in a caretaker capacity and is seeking a third term in office, but his divisive policies have polarized the country and led to widespread resentment, particularly from Sunnis, many of whom feel marginalized and unfairly targeted. As a result, he has faced demands from his opponents, and even from some of his former allies, to relinquish his post.
Sistani is an influential figure and seen by many as a moderate voice of reason, meaning his announcement could speed Maliki's departure.
The top three posts in the Iraqi government have, since the toppling of longtime autocrat Saddam Hussein, been divided between the country's three largest demographics, with the prime minister's post going to a Shiite, the parliamentary speaker's to a Sunni, and the mainly symbolic presidency to a Kurd.
Sunni Salim al-Jabouri was chosen as speaker earlier this month, and yesterday, Kurdish politician Fuad Masum was named as Iraq's new president. Masum, who was the first prime minister of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan in 1992, won a decisive 211 to 17 vote victory after Kurdish factions decided to back him.
Both local figures and the international community have called for the swift formation of a government representing all of Iraq's groups and consolidate Sunni support behind Baghdad rather than the insurgents.
"60 percent of the country is not under government control and the government has no real army."
However, Dr. Alaa Makki, a member of Iraq's largest Sunni Islamist political group the Iraqi Islamic Party, told VICE News that he felt that even if a government is formed soon, it will likely not be capable of providing a solution to the country's precarious security situation due to a severely weakened military and the territory lost to the insurgency.
"I think the current political process will not realize the hopes of the people and it will not bring a government that can cope with the great challenges it faces," Makki said. "60 percent of the country is not under government control and the government has no real army."
"Maliki and his colleagues are dreaming of international support to control the situation and waiting for the US to participate," he said, referring to Maliki's calls for American military aid.
However with US officials ruling out air strikes and boots on the ground, this looks unlikely to be forthcoming. Instead, Makki said lawmakers should reach out to Iraqi regional leaders in ISIS-controlled areas.
"The government has to negotiate with the representatives of the people. ISIS is present and fighting on the ground, but they're only a few thousand strong," he said. "People in these areas are not participating in the political process, they pushed politicians to power [in April] and now politicians can't access them."
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