- Associated Press - Monday, October 18, 2010

TEHRAN (AP) — 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 Shi’ite-led coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who arrived in Tehran for his first visit since March elections.

Iran has the power to sway Mr. al-Maliki’s political fortunes through its deep ties to Iraq’s major Shi’ite 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 is also busy sending out feelers around the region to weigh his support.

The signals from Iran seemed strong.

Iran’s 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.

Later, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 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 Ayatollah Khamenei as telling Mr. al-Maliki.

Mr. al-Maliki plans other meetings with Iranian officials as well as a trip to the Shi’ite 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.

The United States has not publicly endorsed any candidate to lead Iraq but repeatedly has stressed the need for the next government to represent all of Iraq’s groups. These include members of the Sunni-backed group that narrowly won the March elections but was unable to cobble together a parliamentary majority to replace Mr. al-Maliki.

But the head of the bloc, Ayad Allawi, has strongly denounced Iran as trying to destabilize Iraq and steer its political process.

“I won’t be begging Iran to agree upon my nomination,” Mr. Allawi told the Al-Arabiya satellite TV channel on Sunday in a clear jab at Mr. al-Maliki.

He added that Iran should get out of Iraqi politics and “not impose or support one faction over the other.”

Mr. Allawi has threatened to boycott the next government if Mr. al-Maliki remains in office, which could open wider rifts between Iran and Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Mr. al-Maliki met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman before heading to Tehran, but the Jordanian monarch withheld public endorsement for Mr. al-Maliki for a second term.

Even if Mr. al-Maliki appears to have backing from Iran, he desperately wants support from Sunnis, too — in part because of strong pressure from the United States. He will visit the Sunni-dominated nations of Turkey and Egypt next week.

Mr. al-Maliki was greeted by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki after landing at the Tehran airport. He’s scheduled to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad later in the day.


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