The spiritual leader of the Shiite majority called for a new, “effective” government”.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments at Friday prayers contained thinly veiled criticism that Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, in office since 2006, was to blame for the nation’s crisis over the blitz by the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
Mr al-Sistani’s message was delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the holy city of Karbala.
He said the future government “should open new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis”.
Mr al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government has faced criticism over discrimination against Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish populations, and the US has challenged him to create a more inclusive government or risk all-out sectarian war.
While Mr al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc won the most seats in parliament in Iraq’s 30 April election, he now faces opponents bolstered by an intervention by US president Barack Obama.
Mr al-Sistani’s message said: “It is necessary for the winning political blocs to start a dialogue that yields an effective government that enjoys broad national support, avoids past mistakes and opens new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis.”
The Iranian-born cleric, believed to be 86, lives in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. A recluse, he rarely ventures out of his home and does not give interviews.
Iraq’s Shiites deeply revere him and a call to arms he made last week prompted thousands of them to volunteer to fight against Isis.
Mr al-Maliki’s perceived marginalisation of the once-dominant Sunnis sparked recent violence reminiscent of Iraq’s darkest years of sectarian warfare after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Iraq’s newly elected parliament must meet by 30 June to elect a speaker and a new president, who in turn will ask the leader of the largest bloc to form a new government.
With Iraq in turmoil, Mr al-Maliki’s rivals have mounted a campaign to force him out of office, with some angling for support from Western backers and regional heavyweights.
On Thursday, their effort received a boost from Mr Obama, who noticeably declined to back the PM, saying: “Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis.
“We’ve said publicly that whether [Mr al-Maliki] is prime minister or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that there has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shiite and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process.”
An “inclusive agenda” has not been high on the priorities of Mr al-Maliki, however.
Many of his Kurdish and Shiite former allies have been clamouring to deny the prime minister a third term in office, claiming that he has excluded them from a narrow decision-making circle of close confidants.
His efforts last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi.
Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back.
At the same time, many Iraqis complain of government corruption, the failure to rebuild the economy and too close ties with mostly Shiite Iran, a non-Arab nation that Sunni Arab states, including powerhouse Saudi Arabia, see as a threat to regional stability.