Leading Shia cleric calls for new Iraq government

Appeal by Ayatollah Sistani raises pressure on prime minister Nouri al-Maliki

Worshippers inside al Nida mosque, a Sunni center of worship in Baghdad. As the advance of Sunni militants shakes Iraq’s government, Nouri al-Maliki has been widely blamed for loss of territory in the north. Photograph: Ayman Oghanna/The New York Times

Worshippers inside al Nida mosque, a Sunni center of worship in Baghdad. As the advance of Sunni militants shakes Iraq’s government, Nouri al-Maliki has been widely blamed for loss of territory in the north. Photograph: Ayman Oghanna/The New York Times

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric appealed yesterday for the country’s politicians to form a new government with “broad national support”, raising the pressure on the country’s embattled prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been widely blamed for loss of territory in the north to Sunni insurgents.

Speaking the day after President Barack Obama called for a new coalition in Baghdad that embraced disaffected Sunnis and sent troops to help the fightback against the insurgents, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani urged the country’s different political blocs to quickly form an “effective” government.

Although he did not mention Mr Maliki by name, Ayatollah Sistani’s comments were an indirect criticism of the prime minister and his Shia-dominated government.

They have been accused of provoking insurgency by Sunni militants who have taken control of a series of towns and cities in the north.

The two-week campaign by forces from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has pushed Iraq to the brink of all-out sectarian civil war and has called into question the unity of the country.

The violence has forced Mr Obama to reverse his long-stated pledge to end US military involvement in Iraq. On Thursday he said the US would send up to 300 military advisers to help Iraqi forces counter the onslaught from Isis.

US interests

The US fears that if Isis, which has links to al-Qaeda, gains a permanent hold on territory in northern Iraq, it could be used as a platform to launch attacks on the US, or US interests around the Middle East.

John Kerry, US secretary of state, is travelling to Europe and the Middle East this weekend to consult allies on a diplomatic solution.

Senior US officials have been furiously lobbying Iraqi leaders in recent days to forge a new government to try to heal the sectarian divisions. Although they have not called on Mr Maliki to stand down, US officials say that he has helped to provoke the violence by adopting sectarian policies that alienated many Sunnis.

Meanwhile, the lightning advance of jihadi militants through Sunni areas of northern Iraq has hit a wall of resistance led by battle-hardened Shia militias. Across Shia areas, from Baghdad to the south of the country, tens of thousands of volunteers have been signing up – replacing the crumbling façade of the Iraqi army with new ideologically motivated recruits.

Iraqi soldiers have already been joined by several thousand fighters from the Shia militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, who have been acting as shock troops at the army’s vanguard, according to Ahmed al-Kinani, a spokesman for the radical group. Other militias on the front line include battalions such as Sayed al-Shuhadaa and Hizbullah.

Asaib fighters, while independently commanded, have donned military uniforms to work in co-ordination with the Iraqi army and counterterrorism units across all fronts, from Tal Afar, west of Mosul, to the environs of Baghdad.

Halted Isis

Mr Kinani says his militia has halted Isis advances in the towns of Ishaqi and Balad, south of Samarra, a city revered by Shia for its prominent shrines. He claims that Asaib fighters have been helping to defend the crucial Baiji oil refinery in northern Iraq and that they have engaged Isis around the city of Falluja.

Some politicians and analysts charge that the government’s battle against Isis militants – who have been joined by local Sunni tribes and former officers from the late Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime – is being co-ordinated by Iran through Qassim Suleimani, leader of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force.

Shia officials deny this and accuse neighbouring Sunni Gulf states of backing Isis militants.

Asaib is a splinter of the larger Jaysh al-Mahdi, or Mahdi army, the militia loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose forces led Shia resistance against the US occupation.

Prominent force

Mr Sadr, whose followers are a prominent force in Iraqi politics, is against any foreign involvement in the national war effort, and commands a much larger following than other militias. His statements will be watched carefully as the government goes on the offensive against Isis.

Tens of thousands of Mr Sadr’s loyalists are expected to gather across Shia provinces in a show of strength today that Sayyid Ibrahim al-Jabiri, the most senior Sadrist official in the capital, says will gather enough men to “block out the sun”. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)