- Associated Press - Monday, October 18, 2010

TEHRAN | Iran gave its clearest nod of support to Iraq’s prime minister Monday as he seeks to line up backing from key neighbors in his bid to remain in office after a more than seven-month political limbo in Baghdad.

Iran plays a critical role in Iraqi affairs and the Shiite-led coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was making his first visit to Tehran since Iraq’s indecisive March elections.

Iran has the power to sway Mr. al-Maliki’s political fortunes through its deep ties to Iraq’s major Shiite factions, which have dominated government offices and security forces since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Iran’s arch foe Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition is close to securing enough allies for a majority in parliament despite finishing second in March elections behind a Sunni-backed bloc. But Mr. al-Maliki also is busy sending feelers around the region to weigh his support.

The signals from Iran seemed strong.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Rauf Sheibani said Mr. al-Maliki was “one of the suitable choices” to lead the next Iraqi government — the clearest indication that Tehran wants Mr. al-Maliki to stay in power.

Mr. Sheibani was quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency as citing Mr. al-Maliki’s experience leading Iraq and the current “sensitive conditions” during the withdrawal of the U.S. military.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, later called on Iraq to settle its political crisis.

“Formation of a government as soon as possible and establishment of full security are among the important needs of Iraq because development and reconstruction of Iraq … can’t be achieved without these two,” state TV quoted Mr. Khamenei as telling Mr. al-Maliki.

Mr. al-Maliki plans other meetings with Iranian officials, as well as a trip to the Shiite religious center of Qom, where one of Mr. al-Maliki’s important allies lives in self-exile.

The pact with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was critical for Mr. al-Maliki, but it has alarmed Washington because of Mr. al-Sadr’s former militia ties and his likely demands for key roles in a new government.

Mr. al-Maliki also could be urging Iran to pressure Iraq’s biggest Shiite political party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, to join his coalition. The Iranian-backed Supreme Council has been the main Shiite holdout on Mr. al-Maliki’s effort to remain in power.

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