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Aug 1, 8:35 AM EDT

Iraq's top Shiite cleric urges peaceful transition


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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric appealed to Iraqi politicians on Friday not to make themselves "an obstacle" in the country's transition as the deadline looms for selecting the next prime minister.

The remarks by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, delivered by his spokesman, were another indirect appeal by the cleric to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down.

"The big challenges facing Iraq require that the next government command national and broad acceptance ... to face the crises that are hitting the country," spokesman Ahmed al-Safi quoted the reclusive al-Sistani as saying.

"No one should make himself an obstacle in achieving national consensus," al-Sifi added during the sermon in the southern Shiite city of Kabala.

Al-Maliki, who has led the country since 2006, has insisted he remain in the post for a third four-year term. His bloc got the most seats in April's parliamentary elections but failed to get a majority, so he needs to build a coalition in order to govern.

The next government is expected to grapple with an unprecedented blitz offensive by Sunni extremists from the Islamic State group, which in June seized a large chunk of the country's north and west.

Iraq's leaders are under pressure to form an inclusive government that can draw Sunni support away from the insurgency. But the Sunnis have long accused al-Maliki of marginalizing their community, and even many of his Shiite and Kurdish allies say he has monopolized power.

Iraq's newly-elected president, Fouad Massoum, is required to select a prime minister from the largest political bloc by next Friday.

Al-Sistani's appeal came as the United Nations said that more than 1,737 people were killed in Iraq in July, making it one of the deadliest months of the year but marking a decline from the previous month, when the Islamic State militants swept across much of the country. The death toll in June stood at 2,400.

Still, July's toll - which included an increase in killings in areas now under the control of the Islamic State - was considerably higher than May's, when about 800 people were killed.

Iraq's large, U.S.-trained and equipped military melted away in the face of the initial militant onslaught, but has since regrouped - though it has not managed to retake lost ground.

In announcing the latest casualty figures, the U.N. mission also reiterated its own calls on Iraq' 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.

Militants with the Islamic State have also destroyed ancient shrines and mosques in Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, claiming they stray from hardline Islamic practices and instead promote apostasy.

Al-Sistani denounced the targeting of holy sites on Friday, saying Islamic State extremists are "alienating themselves from the humane, Islamic standards."

In Baghdad, a car bomb tore through a busy commercial street in the eastern Habibiya neighborhood, killing seven people and wounding 16. And in the nearby al-Khulani Square in central Baghdad, three bombs exploded almost simultaneously, killing four people and wounding 12, according to police and hospital officials. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media.

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

The U.N. estimates exclude the western Anbar province, most of which has also been held by militants for months.

In Haditha, a town in Anbar near a strategic dam, fighters with the Islamic State group launched a three-prong assault on Friday, 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.

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Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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