Leading Shiite cleric calls for new government in Iraq

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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 was to blame for the nation’s crisis over the march of al Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).

Mr al-Sistani’s message was delivered by his representative Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie 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 government 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.

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, who is believed to be 86, 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.

Iraq’s newly elected parliament must meet by June 30 to elect a speaker and a new president, who in turn will ask the leader of the largest bloc to form a new government.

With Iraq in turmoil, Mr al-Maliki’s rivals have mounted a campaign to force him out of office, with some angling for support from Western backers and regional heavyweights.

On Thursday, their effort received a boost from Mr Obama, who said: “Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis.”