Pressure increases on prime minister
The crisis in Iraq is increasingly taking on a political tone as calls grow for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down. The Shiite leader faces criticism that his failure to promote reconciliation among religious sects sparked the widespread Sunni anger that emboldened the al-Qaida breakaway group that has overtaken large sections of northern territories. Iraq's Shiite spiritual leader Ali al-Sistani called for "an effective government that enjoys broad national support." His remarks increase the pressure on Maliki a day after President Barack Obama called on Iraq's longtime leader to create a more inclusive leadership or risk a civil war. Iraq's recently elected parliament must meet by June 30 to elect a speaker and a new president, who in turn will ask the leader of the largest bloc to form a new government within 15 days. Maliki has held the prime minister job in a caretaker capacity since the April 30 election. If he were to step down, according to the constitution, the president assumes the job until a new prime minister is elected. Names raised as possible replacements are Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a former vice president; Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who was Iraq's first prime minister after Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003; Bayan Jabr, a former finance and interior minister; and Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite lawmaker who was once a favorite in Washington.
ISIS takes over key town in Syria
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria stormed the Syrian town of Muhassan and two nearby villages 60 miles from the Iraqi border, another victory in their efforts to carve out a large region straddling the two conflict-ridden countries. Sunni militants also battled Iraqi security forces for a fourth day for control of the Beiji oil refinery northeast of Baghdad.
• Secretary of State John Kerry heads to the Mideast this weekend to discuss Iraq's stability.
• Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed Moscow's support for the Iraqi government in a phone conversation with Maliki.