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Aug 1, 7:21 AM EDT

Iraq's top Shiite cleric appeals to politicians

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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric is appealing to politicians not to be "an obstacle" in the process of transition as Iraq nears a deadline to select its next prime minister.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in comments delivered by his spokesman on Friday that the next government must "command broad acceptance" from the entire political spectrum.

The spokesman, Ahmed al-Safi, quotes the reclusive cleric as saying that "no one should make himself an obstacle in achieving national consensus."

The remarks are seen as another appeal by al-Sistani to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down.

Iraq's newly-elected president, Fouad Massoum, is required to select a candidate for the post of premier from the largest political bloc by next Friday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

More than 1,700 people were killed in Iraq in July, the United Nations said Friday, making it one of the deadliest months of the year but marking a decline from the previous month, when Sunni militants swept across much of the country.

The U.N. mission to Iraq said in its monthly statement that at least 1,737 people were killed in July, down from 2,400 deaths in June, when the Islamic State group spearheaded a lightning blitz that saw Sunni militants seize much of northern and western Iraq, including the second largest city Mosul.

But the latest figure is considerably higher than May, when some 800 people were killed, and the latest toll includes an increase in killings in areas now under the control of militants.

Iraq's large, U.S.-trained and equipped military melted away in the face of the initial militant onslaught, but has since regrouped, and the battle lines largely stabilized last month as the Sunni militants approached Shiite-majority areas.

Calls for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign have intensified since the crisis began, with critics accusing him of monopolizing power and alienating minority groups.

The Shiite leader has vowed to serve a third four-year term, however, as lawmakers have struggled to agree on a new government that can confront the crisis. Al-Maliki's bloc won the most votes in April's parliamentary elections.

In announcing the latest casualty figures, the U.N. mission again called on the country's feuding politicians to set aside their differences and form an inclusive government.

"It is time that they move forward on the creation of a new government that can address the root causes of violence in Iraq and ensure equitable development for all communities," Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special representative for Iraq, said in the statement Friday.

The wave of violence continued Friday, when a car bomb tore through a busy commercial street in Baghdad's eastern Habibiya neighborhood, killing seven people and wounding 16, police officials said. Health officials confirmed the figures.

Nearby in al-Khulani Square in central Baghdad, three bombs exploded almost simultaneously, killing four people and wounding 12 others, said police and hospital officials. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak with the media.

Baghdad had the highest death toll of any of the provinces in July, according to the U.N., with at least 415 people killed. To the north, Ninevah and Salahuddin have seen heightened violence since the militants seized parts of both provinces, including their provincial capitals, Mosul and Tikrit, in June.

The U.N.'s estimates exclude the western Anbar province, parts of which have been held by militants for months.

On Friday in Haditha, a town in Anbar near a strategic dam, fighters with the Islamic State group launched an assault from three different points, using a suicide oil tanker and trucks, Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, the commander of Anbar Operations Command, told The Associated Press.

The militants briefly took over an army command headquarters in the town, but the military was able to retake it, Fleih said. Ten soldiers were killed in the clashes.


Associated Press reporter Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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