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Shi’ite leaders in Iraq press for prime minister’s ouster

Many lose hope he can unite nation in fight

Members of the Al-Abbas brigades volunteered to protect the Shi’ite Muslim holy sites in Karbala.

MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the Al-Abbas brigades volunteered to protect the Shi’ite Muslim holy sites in Karbala.

BAGHDAD — Prominent Shi’ite leaders pushed Thursday for the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as Parliament prepared to start work next week on putting together a new government, under intense US pressure to rapidly form a united front against a Sunni insurgent onslaught.

Increasingly, former allies of Maliki, a Shi’ite, believe he cannot lead an inclusive government that can draw minority Sunnis away from support for the fighters who have swept over a large swath of Iraq as they head toward the capital, Baghdad. In a further sign of Iraq’s unraveling along sectarian lines, a bombing on Thursday killed 12 people in a Shi’ite neighborhood of Baghdad that houses a revered shrine, and police found the bullet-riddled bodies of eight Sunnis south of the capital.

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Most crucially, though, backing for Maliki is weakening with his most important ally, neighboring Iran.

A senior Iranian general who met with Shi’ite politicians in Iraq during a 10-day visit this month returned home with a list of potential prime minister candidates for Iran’s leadership to consider, several senior Iraqi Shi’ite politicians who have knowledge of the general’s meetings told the Associated Press.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants Maliki to remain in his post, at least for now, the politicians said, but Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, believes Maliki must go or else Iraq will fragment.

Khamenei holds final say in all state matters in Iran, but the politicians expressed doubt he would insist on Maliki against overwhelming rejection of him by Iraq’s Shi’ite parties.

The general, Ghasem Soleimani, is expected to return within days to inform Iraqi politicians of Tehran’s favorite, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.

Iran’s Shi’ite cleric-led government succeeded in herding reluctant Shi’ite parties into backing Maliki for a second term four years ago, and its leverage over Iraq’s Shi’ite political establishment has grown significantly since the 2011 withdrawal of US troops after an eight-year presence.

Non-Arab and mostly Shi’ite, Iran has found in majority Shi’ite Iraq a convenient vehicle to extend its sphere of regional influence to the heart of the Middle East.

Iran’s leverage in Iraq also gives it a trump card against its Sunni rivals in the Gulf region, where powerhouse Saudi Arabia, for example, has traditionally viewed Tehran with suspicion.

The United States and its allies are pushing for the creation of a government that can draw support among Iraq’s Sunni minority, which has been alienated by Maliki, seen as a fiercely partisan Shi’ite.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meeting with Maliki in Baghdad on Thursday, told a news conference that ‘‘we believe the urgent priority must be to form an inclusive government . . . that can command the support of all Iraqis and work to stop terrorists and their terrible crimes.’’

Hague’s trip follows a visit by Secretary of State John Kerry, who earlier this week delivered a similar message.

Kerry met in Paris on Thursday with foreign ministers from America’s top Sunni Arab allies to consider how to confront the Al Qaeda breakaway group leading the Sunni insurgent offensive, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The Arab diplomats did not commit to sending any military assistance to Baghdad, as the United States is doing. The Pentagon said Thursday that four teams of Army special forces have arrived in Baghdad, bringing the number of American troops there to 90 out of the 300 promised by President Obama. The Americans will advise and assist Iraqi counterterrorism forces.

So far, Maliki has defied calls to step aside. In April elections, his State of the Law bloc won the largest proportion in Parliament — 92 seats in the 328-member chamber — but that is not enough for the simple majority needed to name him prime minister.

He no longer has the support of his former Shi’ite, Kurdish, and Sunni allies in his previous coalition.

Compounding the pressure on Maliki, a prominent Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, called in a televised statement late Wednesday for a national unity government of ‘‘new faces’’ representing all groups.

Sadr also vowed to ‘‘shake the ground’’ under the feet of the Sunni insurgents, who have threatened to advance toward Baghdad and holy Shi’ite cities in the south.

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