BAGHDAD -- The spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority has called for the creation of a new, "effective" government, increasing pressure on the country's premier as an offensive by Sunni militants rages on. The call Friday by Gran Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani contained thinly veiled criticism that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in office since 2006, was to blame for the nation's crisis over the blitz by the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Al-Sistani's message was delivered by his representative Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie in the holy city of Karbala.
He said the future government "should open new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis." Al-Maliki's Shiite-led government long has faced criticism of discriminating against Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish populations. Iraq's Shiite prime minister, embattled by the militant offensive sweeping his country's north, faces a growing campaign to force him out of office as insurgents press on with their campaign. Nouri al-Maliki, who rose from relative obscurity to the country's top political office in 2006, has seen his credibility challenged by the Sunni militants of the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The insurgents launched a stunning offensive last week that swallowed up a large chunk of northern Iraq, together with the nation's second-largest city, Mosul. With the country now in turmoil, al-Maliki's rivals have mounted a campaign to force him out of office, with some angling for support from Western backers and regional heavyweights. On Thursday, their effort received a massive boost from President Barack Obama. The U.S. leader stopped short of calling for Nouri al-Maliki to resign, saying "it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders." But, his carefully worded comments did all but that. "Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis," Obama declared at the White House. "We've said publicly, that whether (al-Maliki) is prime minister or any other leader aspires to lead the country, that there has to be an agenda in which Sunni, Shiite and Kurd all feel that they have the opportunity to advance their interest through the political process," the president said. An "inclusive agenda" has not been high on the priorities of al-Maliki, however. Many of al-Maliki's former Kurdish and Shiite allies have been clamoring to deny the prime minister a third term in office, charging that he has excluded them from a narrow decision-making circle of close confidants. Al-Maliki's efforts last year to crush protests by Sunnis complaining of discrimination under his Shiite-led government sparked a new wave of violence by militants, who took over the city of Fallujah in the western, Sunni-dominated province of Anbar and parts of the provincial capital Ramadi. Iraqi army and police forces battling them for months have been unable to take most areas back. At the same time, many Iraqis complain of government corruption, the failure to rebuild the economy and too close ties with mostly Shiite Iran, a non-Arab nation that Sunni Arab states, including powerhouse Saudi Arabia, see as a threat to regional stability. Shiite politicians familiar with the secretive efforts to remove al-Maliki said two names mentioned as possible replacements are former vice president Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a French-educated economist who is also a Shiite, and Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as Iraq's first prime minister after Saddam's ouster. Al-Mahdi belongs to a moderate Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which has close links with Iran. Also lobbying for the job is Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite lawmaker who recently joined the Supreme Council and was once a favorite by Washington to lead Iraq a decade ago. Another Shiite from the Supreme Council who is trying to land the job is Bayan Jabr, a former finance and interior minister under al-Maliki's tenure, according to the politicians, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. An Iraqi Shiite lawmaker, Hakim al-Zamili, said he was aware of a meeting in recent days between Iraqi political leaders and U.S. officials over the issue of al-Maliki's future, though he did not know who attended the meeting. Mohammed al-Khaldi, a top aide to outgoing Sunni speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, said: "We have asked the Americans, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran to work toward denying al-Maliki a new term. The Shiite bloc must find a replacement for him." A leading Sunni tribal chief also said al-Maliki has to go. "I think that most of Obama's speech, but not all of it, it was shallow and didn't address the heart of the matter," Sheik Ali Hatem al-Suleiman told The Associated Press in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil. "The real problem in Iraq is al-Maliki himself." "U.S. policy cannot rely on a paralyzed man who has lost control of Iraq, when he is the one who took Iraq to this point." Al-Maliki has been adopting conciliatory language in recent days toward Sunnis and Kurds. He said the militant threat affects all Iraqis, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation, and called on Iraqis to drop all "Sunnis and Shiites" talk. The ongoing crisis, al-Maliki said, had made Iraqis rediscover "national unity." The pro-al-Maliki media also made a show of a meeting Tuesday night between the Iraqi leader and Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political leaders. Al-Maliki's efforts come as militants and soldiers fight for control of the Beiji refinery, the country's largest, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad. The loss of the refinery would be a devastating symbol of the Baghdad government's powerlessness in the face of a determined insurgency hostile to the West. By late Thursday, the two sides held different parts of the refinery, which extends over several square kilometers (miles) of desert. The army officer in charge of protecting the refinery told The Associated Press on Friday that he believed the militants were regrouping to launch a new attack after his forces repelled one Thursday night. There was no immediate way to independently verify his claims. The facility's production accounts for just over a quarter of the country's entire refining capacity. It goes strictly toward domestic consumption for gasoline as well as fuel for cooking and power stations. It isn't clear what the insurgents would do if they fully captured Beiji. In Syria, the Islamic State has control of some smaller oil fields, but government air raids have limited their ability to profit from them. Militants have, however, refined oil into usable fuel products at primitive refineries. --- Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Diaa Hadid in Irbil, Iraq, and Lara Jakes and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.