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Iraqi Leader Maliki Loses Backing of Shiite Figure and Iran for New Term
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani Comes Out in Opposition to Maliki
By Nour Malas
July 22, 2014 4:38 p.m. ET
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Associated Press
BAGHDAD—Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is losing political support for his bid for a third term from core backers, including the country's Shiite religious establishment and ally Iran, say Iraqi officials.
The shift, officials said, is prompting members of the premier's own alliance to reconsider their support and dimming the prospect of his stay in power.
In recent days, high-level delegations of Iranian military officials and diplomats held a flurry of meetings in Baghdad and the Shiite religious capital Najaf, where they were told that Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, has lost the confidence of all but his most loyal inner circle, Iraqi officials with knowledge of the meetings said.
One Iraqi official briefed on the meetings said Iranian representatives signaled during their visit that Tehran has "really started to lean away from Maliki as a candidate."
Also critically, Mr. Maliki's bid to stay in office has, say prominent Shiite politicians, run into opposition from Iraq's top Shiite spiritual authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has become central to the grinding talks between political blocs to form a government.
The process, a complicated task of political jockeying that took months the last time around, was given new urgency by the Sunni militant campaign launched last month that has swallowed parts of Iraq and brought the country to the brink of disintegration.
Ayatollah Sistani took the unusual step of sending a letter directly to Mr. Maliki's office last week that made clear the cleric's opposition to a third term, a message also made clear to the visiting Iranian officials, said three Iraqi politicians involved in the talks.
Mr. Sistani's letter was a sign that he believes the prime minister has become divisive even within his own Shiite support base and is unable to lead the country out of the latest crisis, several Shiite politicians said.
Iran played a key role in Mr. Maliki's rise to power, and senior Iranian officials have defended his rule even since the latest crisis began. Ayatollah Sistani has a large following among Iraq's majority Shiite population that has given him a decisive voice at critical political turning points in the past, but he rarely intervenes so directly. Ayatollah Sistani's office doesn't respond to media inquiries.
The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad and Iran's United Nations representatives didn't return requests to comment.
Iran "will align with what Sistani would like to see," said Hoshyar Zebari, who until last week was Iraq's top diplomat. Mr. Zebari, a Kurd, was replaced as foreign minister after tensions rose between Mr. Maliki and Kurdish cabinet members.
He said he couldn't confirm that Iran told Mr. Maliki they no longer supported his continued bid for power, but said "they would not oppose Sistani's judgment or preferences."
In Baghdad, some of Mr. Maliki's partners in his State of Law coalition have threatened to withdraw if he doesn't give up his bid for the premiership, said two officials from the broader National Alliance, the umbrella Shiite coalition that is the largest bloc in parliament.
A lawmaker from Mr. Maliki's Dawa party, which is one part of the State of Law coalition, said the coalition was holding discussions over whether to consider other candidates. "At this moment, State of Law does not have a candidate other than Nouri al-Maliki and we hope to finalize this decision soon," said Khaled al-Assadi, the lawmaker, who is close to Mr. Maliki.
Mr. Assadi said he wasn't aware of any letter from Ayatollah Sistani sent to Mr. Maliki. He lamented any regional interference in Iraq's political process, from Iran and other countries. "What matters to us as Iraqis is to sort out a situation that works for us," he said.
Regional and Western powers hope that a more conciliatory government in Baghdad would hold Iraq together and push back the threat from Sunni radical militants. Many former supporters of Mr. Maliki, including the Obama administration, say that is no longer possible under his leadership.
Influential Sunni factions now supporting the militant group, which calls itself Islamic State, say they would turn against the insurgency if Mr. Maliki steps aside and Sunnis are reintegrated into Iraq's political order.
It is still possible Mr. Maliki will succeed in his bid for a third term. Mr. Maliki's party won the most parliamentary seats in the April elections.
The Iraqi leader may seek to portray himself as a casualty of the Shiite religious establishment and focus on rallying support from other factions, including Sunni Arabs and Kurds, and secular factions who oppose religious interference in the political sphere, said Izzat Shahbandar, a former lawmaker and aide of the prime minister who has become critical of him.
He will also play for time. "He stays stubborn until the last minute," said Mr. Shahbandar, a Shiite. "This strategy has worked for him in the past. You hold out until the end, and by then the alternatives have all knocked each other over." For now, he said, Mr. Maliki is "living on extra time in the absence of a political agreement."
Iran's leadership has been divided on whether to continue to support Mr. Maliki as the Sunni insurgent threat has spread, Western and Arab officials have said, with some officials indicating they would support an alternative Shiite candidate rather than risk the region's descent into wide sectarian warfare.
Iraqi and Western officials say Iran will seek a candidate with whom Tehran can cultivate close relations. By custom, a Shiite holds the role of prime minister, a Kurd is president and a Sunni is parliamentary speaker.
The Iranian delegation that visited last week was head by Ali Shawkhani, secretary of the powerful Supreme National Security Council, Iraqi officials said. It included intelligence, security, foreign affairs, and Revolutionary Guards representatives.
—Ali A. Nabhan contributed to this article.