Iraq’s top Shia Muslim cleric said on Friday that a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian dominance in the country a week after incumbent Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would resign.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shia Iran’s interests.
The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after two months of anti-government protests that have increasingly focused anger against many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.
Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference in the country as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.
He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.
“We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of 15 days since the resignation was formalized in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.
“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the process to choose a new government.
More than a dozen members of the security forces have been killed in the clashes.
Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.
Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down on Friday last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.
Abdul Mahdi’s government, including himself, will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government can be chosen, the prime minister said last week.
President Barham Salih officially has 15 days - until Dec. 16 - to name a new premier tasked with forming a government that would be approved by parliament up to a month later.
Iraqi lawmakers say they will then move to hold a general election next year.
Protesters complain that without a new, fully representative electoral law and unbiased electoral commission, a snap vote will change nothing and keep veteran, corrupt politicians in power.