Cleric puts pressure on Iraqi lawmakers

Associated Press

BAGHDAD

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, 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 U.S. military forces in the capital.

Less than three years after the last American troops left Iraq, Washington has found itself being pulled back in by the stunning offensive spearheaded by the al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The onslaught has triggered the worst crisis in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal and sapped public — and international — confidence in Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

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

In Washington, the Obama administration backed al-Sistani’s call for Iraqi leaders to agree on a new government “without delay.”

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