Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim cleric called Friday for a new government to be formed without delay and said all Iraqis must work together to resolve the country's political crisis.
The comments by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's majority Shiites, came as pressure mounts on Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to make significant changes to an authoritarian leadership style that has fueled the takeover of large swaths of northern and western Iraq by Sunni Muslim insurgents.
While not mentioning Maliki, Sistani said the new government, to be formed after a court this week certified the results of April parliamentary elections, must be inclusive.
"We call on the politicians to put all Iraqis on the same level, to stand against" the insurgents, Sistani said in a weekly Friday sermon that was read by an aide and broadcast from the holy city of Karbala. He referred to the insurgents as "apostates."
President Obama said Thursday that he would dispatch as many as 300 military advisers to support Maliki's armed forces against militant fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their allies. But Obama urged the Iraqi leader, who is also a Shiite, to make serious concessions to his political rivals. U.S. officials have also begun meeting privately with Maliki opponents in Baghdad in a sign that the administration may be looking for ways to promote a new prime minister.
Sistani also sought to clarify his remarks last week that called on Iraqis to take up arms against the insurgents, who have been led in part by ISIS, an Al Qaeda splinter group. Thousands of volunteers rushed to training camps in Baghdad and other cities after Sistani's announcement last Friday, provoking fear, particularly among minority Sunnis, of a return to sectarian civil war that ripped through Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Saying the insurgents "appear to have the upper hand in several provinces," Sistani said his call for volunteer fighters included members of all religious sects who must work alongside the Iraqi armed forces.