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Top Iraqi cleric pushes for new leader

Ali al-Sistani wants Iraqi lawmakers to pick a prime minister by next week.

AFP/Getty Images

Ali al-Sistani wants Iraqi lawmakers to pick a prime minister by next week.

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric ratcheted up the pressure Friday on lawmakers to agree on a prime minister before the newly elected Parliament meets next week, trying to avert months of wrangling in the face of a Sunni insurgent blitz over huge tracts in the country’s north and west.

The United States, meanwhile, started flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect American civilians and newly deployed US military forces in the capital.

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Less than three years after the last US troops left Iraq, Washington is being pulled back in by the stunning offensive spearheaded by the Qaeda breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The onslaught, which began less than three weeks ago, has triggered the worst crisis in Iraq since the US withdrawal and sapped public — and international — confidence in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite.

Many of Maliki’s former allies, and even key patron Iran, have begun exploring alternatives to replace him. But Maliki, who has governed Iraq since 2006, has proven over the years to be a savvy and hard-nosed politician, and has shown no willingness to step aside.

Maliki can claim to have a mandate. He won the most votes in April elections, and his State of Law bloc won the most seats by far. But he failed to gain the majority needed to govern alone, leaving him in need of allies to retain his post.

That has set the stage for what could be months of arduous coalition negotiations. After 2010’s elections, it took politicians nine months to agree on a prime minister. Now, unlike four years ago, the territorial cohesion of Iraq is at stake.

Seizing on the sense of urgency, Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the country’s politicians to agree on the next prime minister, Parliament speaker, and president by the time the new Legislature meets on Tuesday, a cleric who represents him told worshipers in a sermon Friday in the holy city of Karbala.

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