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Jul 25, 11:10 AM EDT

Iraq's top Shiite cleric makes thinly veiled appeal to al-Maliki to step down


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BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric made a thinly veiled appeal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down, calling upon political leaders Friday not to "cling" to their posts at the expense of political stability as lawmakers struggle to form a new government that can tackle rising violence in the country.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's comments, relayed by a representative during prayers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, came a day after Iraq's parliament named a veteran Kurdish politician as president. The new president, Fouad Massoum, now has the important task of selecting a candidate for prime minister, who must then try to form a government.

Al-Maliki, who has led the country since 2006, is fighting for a third term. His political bloc won the most seats in April parliamentary elections but failed to get a majority and so needs to build a coalition in order to govern. Leaders are under pressure to form an inclusive government that can draw Sunni support away from the insurgency. But Sunnis have long accused al-Maliki of marginalizing their community, and even many of his Shiite and Kurdish allies say he has monopolized power.

Al-Sistani did not name specific leaders. Last month, however, the cleric called on al-Maliki to step aside, according to a senior member of a prominent Shiite family that has for decades maintained regular contact with al-Sistani.

"The gravity of the phase Iraq is undergoing requires the concerned parties to bear their national responsibilities, which require sacrifice and not to cling to posts," al-Sistani's spokesman Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie said in his sermon. "This government ... should enjoy broad national acceptance so that it will be able to face the current challenges, correct the many mistakes of the past, and unite the people in order to combat terrorism."

Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops following the blitz launched last month by the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State group that began in the north with the capture of Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul on June 10.

The militants had shown a measure of restraint in the initial weeks of controlling the mainly Sunni city in a bid to maintain support of the residents who had been long frustrated by mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government. But signs are beginning to emerge of efforts to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

On Friday, the militants ordered women in Mosul to cover their faces in public and wear loose, modest clothing. Local residents described a banner with the rules posted on the wall of the Heibat Khatoun mosque. The sign also instructed women to avoid clothing with patterns or bright colors.

The militant group also distributed a statement to tailors and shops that sell or make women's clothes informing them of their newly imposed dress code, shopkeepers told The Associated Press.

The shopkeepers and residents spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals from the militants.

Violence also continued on Friday, with a car bomb exploded outside a mosque near the northern city of Kirkuk as Shiite worshippers were leaving after prayer services, killing eight people and wounding another 24, according to police and hospital officials.

Mortar shells also slammed into houses in Taji, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, killing three people and wounding seven others, officials said.

The officials provided the information on condition they not be identified because they were not authorized to brief the media.

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