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Iraq’s top cleric presses for fast decision on new leader

– Iraq’s top Shiite cleric ratcheted up the pressure Friday on lawmakers to agree on a prime minister before the newly elected parliament meets next week, trying to avert months of wrangling in the face of a Sunni insurgent blitz over huge tracts in the country’s north and west.

The United States, meanwhile, started flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect American civilians and newly deployed U.S. military forces in the capital.

Less than three years after the last American troops left Iraq, Washington has found itself being pulled back in by the stunning offensive spearheaded by the al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The onslaught has triggered the worst crisis in Iraq since the U.S. withdrawal and sapped public – and international – confidence in Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Many of al-Maliki’s former allies, and even key patron Iran, have begun exploring alternatives to replace him. But al-Maliki, who has governed the country since 2006, has proven to be a savvy and hard-nosed politician, and so far he has shown no willingness to step aside.

Al-Maliki can claim to have a mandate. He personally won the most votes in April elections, and his State of Law bloc won the most seats by far. But he failed to gain the majority needed to govern alone, leaving him in need of allies to retain his post.

That has set the stage for what could be months of arduous coalition negotiations. After 2010 elections, it took Iraqi politicians nine months to agree on a new prime minister. Now, the territorial cohesion of Iraq is at stake.

Seizing on the sense of urgency, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the country’s politicians to agree on the next prime minister, parliament speaker and president by the time the new legislature meets on Tuesday, a cleric who represents him told worshippers in a sermon Friday in the holy city of Karbala.

In Washington, the Obama administration backed al-Sistani’s call for Iraqi leaders to agree on a new government “without delay.” The United States has already deployed 180 of 300 troops promised by President Barack Obama to assist and advise Iraqi troops.

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