BAGHDAD — Iraq's top Shiite cleric stepped up the pressure Friday on politicians to agree on Iraq's next prime minister, after incumbent Nouri al-Maliki lost the confidence of former allies in the fight against Sunni militants.
The appeal by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani comes as al-Maliki is fighting to keep his job, with even key patron Iran exploring alternatives in the face of Iraq's worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011.
The conflict has drawn the Americans back to Iraq with special forces being deployed to help Iraqi troops. The U.S. also has started flying armed drones over Baghdad to protect U.S. interests in the Iraqi capital, a Pentagon official said Friday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the new flights on the record.
Al-Maliki, who has governed the country since 2006, needs support from other parties after his State of Law bloc won the most seats in the elections but failed to gain the majority needed to govern alone. That set the stage for potentially months of coalition negotiations. But now a new government is wanted urgently to face the lightning advance across the north and west of the country by the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The stunning gains were made possible in large part because Iraqi security forces melted away in the face of the onslaught.
Human Rights Watch released a report Friday about the killings of scores of police and soldiers by the Sunni militants in the days after it captured the northern city of Mosul on June 10 then stormed south to capture Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
The killings were widely reported after the Islamic State posted graphic, online photos showing dozens of men wearing civilian clothes lined up and bent over as militants pointed rifles at them from behind. A final set of photos shows bodies.