Top Shiite Cleric Adds to U.S. Pressure on Iraqi Leaders

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric added to U.S. pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his political allies to form a new government that can command support across sectarian lines.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who played a key role in calming sectarian tensions in previous years, today called for the creation of a new “effective” government.

Al-Sistani’s message, delivered by his representative Ahmed al-Safi in the holy city of Karbala, follows U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement yesterday of limited military assistance to help the government in Baghdad turn the tide against a growing Sunni insurgency.

In authorizing deployment of up to 300 special operations advisers to Iraq, Obama stressed that the onus is on Iraqi leaders to resolve the crisis and that time is limited.

“There is an urgent need for an inclusive political process,” Obama said at the White House.

Insurgents led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, have seized cities north of Baghdad and engaged in a back-and-forth battle to control the Baiji oil refinery, the nation’s largest.

Thirty Shiite militiamen were killed in clashes with insurgents who attacked Muqdadiyah, the capital of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, Agence France-Presse reported, citing local officials. The fighting began this morning and eased later in the day with security forces still in control of Muqdadiyah, AFP said.

Border Crossing

Also today, militants seized the al-Qaim crossing at the Syrian border, after government forces abandoned their posts, Iraqi news agency al-Mada reported. The insurgents seized military equipment and freed prisoners, it said.

Iraq’s airforce carried out strikes yesterday that killed 70 ISIL fighters in several villages, the army said on its website.

Administration officials said the next few weeks will be critical for Iraqi politicians to act. Brett McGurk, the senior State Department official responsible for Iraq policy, and Ambassador Robert S. Beecroft have been meeting Iraqi political figures this week to press them to quickly form a new government, after elections held April 30.

While Obama and his advisers said yesterday that the U.S. isn’t backing any particular candidate, the New York Times reported that the U.S. was actively encouraging the Shiites, the dominant group in Iraq’s government, to replace Maliki. At least three other Shiite officials have emerged as possible successors, the Times reported from Baghdad.

Maliki’s Support

It’s not yet clear whether Maliki will have the support to remain as prime minister, according to an administration official who briefed reporters after the president’s remarks on condition of anonymity.

Maliki’s party won 92 seats in the parliament. While short of the 165 needed for a majority, his bloc is part of a coalition that claimed more than 170 seats. After the 2010 national elections, it took about eight months to form the government.

Obama yesterday declined to say whether he continues to have confidence in Maliki, whose government the administration blames for inflaming sectarian tensions in OPEC’s second-largest oil producer.

“It’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Obama said. “It is clear, though, that 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.”

Giving Space

The U.S. will be evaluating over the next several weeks whether the advisers and reconnaissance flights that Obama authorized are helping give enough relief from the conflict to allow political progress in Baghdad, the administration official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry will travel this weekend to consult with allies in the Middle East and Europe.

Crude shipments from southern Iraq, where most production is located, have mostly been unaffected by the fighting. Kurds are defending the Kirkuk oilfield in the north. Iraq pumped 3.3 million barrels a day of oil last month.

With the uncertainty imposed by the sectarian strife, Brent crude, which is used to price more than half of the world’s oil, headed for a second weekly gain. It reached a nine-month high yesterday.

No Combat

Obama, who was elected to office in 2008 on a promise of withdrawing troops from Iraq, repeated yesterday a vow that “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.”

He held off ordering air strikes, which have been sought by Maliki’s government. The U.S. is “prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

Pentagon officials said that not all of the 300 special forces advisers Obama authorized necessarily will be sent to Iraq. Those who are may mostly be stationed in the joint operations centers, usually in Baghdad, and not in the field advising Iraqi troops.

The advisers, most of whom are already in the region, will work with Iraqi units at the headquarters and brigade level, administration officials said in the briefing. Their initial task will be an assessment of the Iraqi forces.