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Iraq Shiite leader calls for new government, criticises 'past mistakes'

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has urged all Iraqis to defend their country, after being accused of fuelling sectarianism in Iraq
A book cover featuring Shiite Muslim spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (AFP)

The most senior Shiite religious leader in Iraq has called for the formation of an “effective government” to foster national unity and criticised "past mistakes" made by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration, in a departure from previous support for the embattled Iraqi leader.

“The winning coalitions [of April’s elections] must engage in discussions to form a new effective government that has broad national support, avoiding past mistakes and opening new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis,” Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's spokesperson said on his behalf during a sermon on Friday.

The comments have been viewed as thinly veiled criticism of Prime Minister Maliki, who has been accused of alienating and marginalising the country’s Sunni community. Sistani also called for politicians to observe time limits placed on the formation of a new government.

“The Supreme Court has verified the elections and there are constitutional time limits for holding the first session of parliament,” he said. “It is very important to observe these time limits and not break them.”

Now elections have been approved by the Supreme Court legislators must hold a parliamentary session to elect a speaker, with the second session to be held within a month. In the past forming a government has been a lengthy and complex process in Iraq, as in 2010 when it took 14 weeks for elections to be approved. Then, as now, negotiations to form a coalition were challenging and politicians have previously sought to buy time by keeping the first session open so they do not have to form a government within a month, as stipulated by the constitution.

On Friday Sistani also sought to clarify a call to arms he issued last week, interpreted by some as being communicated exclusively to the Shiite community, by saying it has been misunderstood.

Sistani's clarifications

“Our call last Friday was for all Iraqi citizens, not for a particular sect,” he said. “Our call to volunteer was to join the Iraqi Security Forces, not to form militias outside the law, we state that arms must only be in the hands of the government.”

“There was no sectarian angle to our call for defending the country and volunteering,” he added.

Iraq has been plunged into crisis after Sunni militias took control of cities across the country, including the second largest city Mosul, with some fearing the outbreak of an openly sectarian conflict. Concern has rapidly grown about the role being played by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have been credited with playing a key role in the Mosul seizure and are known for their brutal treatment of civilians and Shiites who they view as heretics deserving of the death sentence.

Sistani warned of the danger facing Iraq by ISIL, saying if they are not routed then the country’s future could be dire.

“This Takfiri group is a catastrophe for our country, which is why our call is for all Iraqis to rise up against them,” he said, adding “if they are not stopped today then all Iraqis will regret what will happen tomorrow”.

Many in the Shiite community have mobilised to protect their religious sites, which have been threatened with destruction by ISIL. Sistani confirmed these concerns on Friday, saying “they [ISIL] stated clearly they will target other provinces like Najaf and Karbala and will target all shrines they can reach”.

Some say Sistani could play a key role in uniting the country and avoid what many fear could descend into an openly sectarian conflict.

“Sistani has a lot of weight in Iraq, I would say he is the most powerful man in Iraq by a distance," said Sajad Jiyad, director of policy at the London-based Iraqi Centre for Integration and Cohesion. "It is within his power to get everyone to unite," he added.

Silence on corruption

Others disagree, saying the Shiite leader is not trusted among the Sunni community due to a perceived partisan line.

“The Shiite say Sistani is the most powerful in Iraq because they want to give the authority to one of their religious figures," said Fareed Sabri, former spokesperson for the Iraqi Islamic Party 2006-08. "He has the power to say something but for the past ten years he has said nothing to build trust with the Sunni community."

"All we have heard is silence and support for the corrupt government of Nouri al-Maliki," he added.

British-Iraqi Jiyad contests that Sistani is committed to an inclusive Iraq, pointing to his comments on Friday as a sign he is a unifier.

"“Sistani’s biggest concern is to keep Iraq together, avoiding loss of life and helping Iraqis enjoy a peaceful existence," he said."This speech had a lot of meaning to it, he said all Iraqis need to respond to the call for defending the nation. He is critical, he isn’t supportive of any particular politician because they are Shiite or for any other reason.”

“Sistani has no time for this kind of partisan thinking," he added.

Former politician Sabri takes a different tack, however, saying Sistani's failure to speak out against oppression of the Sunni community has left him with few friends.

“For the past ten years people have been begging him to speak about the human rights abuses and the killing of civilians," he said. "For example, in the past two or three days the security forces have been executing all the prisoners and civilians they hold in their prisons, as in Diyala where they have murdered about 100 people."

“We challenge him to say something about the executions in the prisons.”

Sunni-Shiite divisions

Divisions between Sunni and Shiite communities are deeply driven, with some describing the recent bout of violence as the eruption of a "Sunni uprising". The influential cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi signed a statement on Thursday calling on regional countries to stand by Sunnis revolting against Maliki's sectarian Baghdad government.

Some analysts, however, point to Sistani as a leader who has a track record of calming violent situations.

“I completely disagree with the belief that he [Sistani] cannot unite Iraq," said Hayder al-Khoei, associate fellow at the think-tank Chatham House. "Even during the darkest days of the sectarian and civil war in 2006, and even after al-Qaeda linked militants blew up the shrine in Samarra, Sistani was constantly calling for calm," he added.

Painting the current crisis as an uprising could impact on how it progesses, according to Khoei.

“It’s too simple to paint this as Sunni mistrust of the Shiite, because you have several high profile Sunni clerics who have now come out very strongly and denounced ISIL as a threat for all Iraqis," he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean the Sunni religious scholars support the Iraqi government, obviously many of them don’t, but there can be no doubt that they view ISIL as a terrorist threat.”

“If this is seen as a terrorist problem then you can fight it as a state and as a country, if the Shiites believe this is a Sunni uprising it will have a knock-on effect on how they view the crisis," he added.

The battle for Iraq's land and future is raging on, with Sunni militia fighting government forces in the oil refinery town of Baiji and around the Tal Afar airport in the north. How it will play out is as yet unclear, but what is for certain is that it will take an almighty effort to reconcile the deeply driven divisions that rack this troubled nation.