Iraq’s top Shiite cleric told political leaders to pick a new prime minister in the next four days, Krishnadev Calamur of NPR reports.
“Tuesday’s session will be the first since an election in April, and comes as parties jostle to form the largest coalition and therefore the right to appoint the prime minister,”
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani spokesman said, according to NPR correspondent Alice Fordham.
Several senior Iraqi Shiite politicians told the Associated Press that Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) General Qassem Soleimani, who calling the shots in Baghdad, has “a list of potential prime minister candidates for Iran’s leadership to consider … [and] is expected to return within days to inform Iraqi politicians of Tehran’s favourite.”
Sistani is Iraq’s highest-ranking cleric, and is the “prime marja,” or spiritual reference-point, for the world’s 150-200 million Shi’ites. He’s had a moderating influence over the past decade of turmoil in Iraq. He negotiated a truce with radical Shi’ite cleric and longtime rival Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army when the militant group took over Najaf’s shrines — some of the holiest sites in Shi’ism — in 2004.
Sistani has long been a proponent of Iraq’s democratic process, organising a Shi’ite electoral bloc in 2005, and pointedly refuse to endorse any candidates during elections in 2010, thus allowing the political process to unfold free of his overwhelming influence. Sistani also issued a fatwa against sectarian violence in late 2013. Notably, Sistani also urged Iraqis to join the security services to fight ISIS on June 16th.
Iraq’s leading religious figure and a long-time opponent of the country’s most hardcore Shi’ite sectarians now believes that Iraq’s authoritarian and Iranian-supported Shi’ite strongman can no longer remain in power. It’s possible that Sistani wants to prevent Iraq from spiraling into all-out sectarian war, and sees Maliki’s removal as the only remaining off-ramp.
And it’s possible that the Iranians are leveraging Sistani to affect a change in policy that they’re contemplating anyway: the AP notes that Souleimani met with Sistani’s son for two hours this week. With Sistani appearing to broker Maliki’s exit, Iran’s hands can appear relatively clean — and Tehran will get a hand-picked successor to Maliki that seems to diffuse the country’s political crisis without lessening Iranian influence.
Iranian proxy militias have bolstered southern Iraq since at least January, when a call for “protectors of holy sites in Syria and Iraq” led to Shia many Iraqi Shia fighters returning from Syria to protect cities that are now threatened by an ISIS-led Sunni coalition:
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