NAJAF, Iraq — The hard-line Shi’ite cleric whose followers are a swing vote in Iraq’s ongoing government crisis said Sunday that the prime minister should resign if he cannot produce reforms.
In a rare and wide-ranging press conference, Moqtada al-Sadr admonished the Shi’ite-led government, saying it has shut Iraq’s minorities out of power and failed to fix legal systems and other public services.
As a result, and to jump-start the nation’s all but paralyzed government, Sadr said he is prepared to direct his party’s 40 lawmakers to support a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — so long as he is assured other political blocs in parliament provide the rest of the 163 votes needed.
His declaration delivers a sharp blow to Maliki’s efforts to hold on to power. The Shi’ite prime minister kept his job after 2010 national elections failed to produce a clear winner only with grudging support from Sadr, an old nemesis.
‘‘If the head is reformed, everything beyond it is reformed,’’ Sadr said about ways to fix the government.
He added: ‘‘I do not support a no confidence vote if it hurts the Iraqi people. But the no-confidence [vote] is not what has delayed the government from doing its duty.’’
Sadr has flirted with the prospect of abandoning Maliki for months. The two men have a bitter personal history, going back to when government forces targeted Sadr’s militia at the peak of the 2006-2008 sectarian fighting that almost pushed the country into civil war.
An adviser to Maliki, Ali al-Moussawi, declined to comment on Sadr’s statements.
However, the prime minister’s aides have previously predicted any vote to replace Maliki would fall short — as has Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.
Also Sunday, an Iraqi press freedom group condemned authorities for ordering the closure of 44 news organizations, including a US-funded radio station. The country’s media commission said it was targeting only unlicensed operations.