Top Shiite Cleric Tells Iraq Leaders to Pick New Premier

Jun 28, 2014 3:05 am ET

(Updates with oil prices in fifth paragraph. See EXTRA for more on the turmoil in Iraq.)

June 28 (Bloomberg) -- Iraq’s top Shiite religious leader stepped up pressure on politicians to agree on a new government intended to prevent a fracturing of the country, as the army battles militants who have seized major cities.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in remarks relayed to worshipers at Friday prayers in the holy city of Karbala, said that picking a prime minister, president and speaker when the legislature meets July 1 will lead to the “desired solution” to the crisis.

“The assembly should avoid sectarian and nationalistic wrangling as it would only exacerbate the situation in the country,” Sistani said through his representative, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie. “The Iraqi people are able to overcome this crisis. A breakup isn’t the solution.”

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is facing concerted pressure at home and from world leaders to help forge a unity government that can respond to the demands of Sunnis marginalized by his Shiite-dominated administration. Some of them have supported the militants who overran Mosul and other northern cities this month, threatening a return to civil war and the breakup of OPEC’s No. 2 oil producer.

Oil futures declined this week as the conflict in Iraq spared the country’s main oil-producing region in the south. Iraqi forces also held the Baiji refinery in the north. Brent for August settlement dropped 1.3 percent this week, the biggest decline since the seven days ended March 21. WTI for August delivery fell 1.4 percent this week.

Armed Drones

U.S. President Barack Obama, while agreeing to send military advisers to help the Iraqi army fight the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has refrained from ordering airstrikes, putting the onus on Iraqi leaders to form a more inclusive government and defeat ISIL. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad this week to urge formation of a broad-based coalition.

U.S. drones and piloted planes conducting reconnaissance flights over Iraq are now armed, Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters in Washington yesterday. He said that’s partly to protect the advisers as they arrive in Iraq and venture beyond the fortified walls of the American embassy in Baghdad.

As the Iraqi army is seeking to fight back against ISIL, there are signs that ethnic and sectarian divisions are hardening.

Mortar Rounds

In Baquba, the capital of Diyala province about 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of Baghdad, Shiite militias are patrolling the city, and Sunnis are afraid to leave their homes for fear they’ll be attacked, Basem al-Samarraei, deputy governor of the eastern Diyala province, said by phone late yesterday.

He said security forces were fighting ISIL around the town of Mansouriya, and reports suggest that the government forces were still in control of the oilfields there.

Iraqi troops backed by helicopters stepped up their battle against ISIL insurgents in Tikrit, the hometown of former President Saddam Hussein 95 miles north of Baghdad. The city was taken by ISIL soon after it swept into Mosul.

“We’re hearing helicopters hovering above and the thud of mortar rounds landing,” Tikrit resident Khaled al-Samarraei, 45, said by phone, describing bombardments that began around dawn yesterday. Stores are shut, electricity and water have been cut, and his family is living off supplies they had stockpiled, he said.

No Referendum

Further north, in Iraq’s Kurdish-controlled region, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said that the arrival of his fighters in Kirkuk “can’t be reversed or changed,” signaling an unwillingness to give up a region that’s been disputed between the government in Baghdad and the Kurds.

There’s no longer any need for a referendum on the city’s status, said Barzani, who this week hinted that he may seek independence for the Kurds. Kurdish fighters took over control of Kirkuk, the main northern oil hub, as Iraq’s army withdrew in the face of ISIL’s advance.

Iraq’s parliament is set to convene next week, after April elections in which no political bloc won a majority. The process of forming a government took eight months after the previous vote four years ago.

Maliki has so far refused to step down, even as some of his Shiite allies as well as Sunni and Kurdish leaders have called for his departure. The premier has blamed Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, for fomenting unrest.

--With assistance from David Lerman in Washington and Alaa Shahine in Dubai.