BAGHDAD — Iraq's top Shiite cleric on Friday urged the country's divided political factions to select a new prime minister by early next week, in a public call for a political solution that increases pressure on the embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Speaking from the holy city of Karbala, Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, a cleric representing Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on Iraq's political blocs to select a new leader before the recently elected parliament sits Monday.
Delivering the message from the grand ayatollah, he also urged the factions to select a parliamentary speaker and a president, and for the country to remain whole.
"Iraqis have passed bigger crises than this in the past history," he said. "We must not think of dividing Iraq as part of a solution for the current crises, the solution must protect the unity of Iraq and the rights of all its sects."
The grand ayatollah's message came as Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, challenged the central government's authority and the cleric's wishes. On a tour of Kirkuk, the long-contested and oil-rich northern city that Kurds claim as their own, Barzani said Thursday that the city would remain in Kurdish hands. He repeated his position Friday.
The challenges to Maliki, a Shiite, underscored the intractable nature of Iraq's political problems even as fighting rages in many areas of the country and large swaths of territory are out of government control.
No obvious or broadly supported successor to Maliki has emerged, making it uncertain how political blocs might select a new prime minister by the grand ayatollah's suggested deadline.
Maliki, for his part, did not address the grand ayatollah's message. In a taped speech televised Friday afternoon, he said parliament would meet Monday and Iraq's security forces were guarding the capital. It was not clear whether his address had been taped before or after the grand ayatollah's message.