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Sistani Says No Foreign Meddling To Choose New Iraq PM, In Nod To Iran

Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, undated. File photo
BAGHDAD, Dec 6 (Reuters) -

Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric said on Friday that a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian dominance in the country a week after incumbent Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would resign.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander, Qassem Soleimani had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shi'ite Iran's interests.

The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after two months of anti-government protests that have increasingly focused anger against many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.

Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference in the country as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.

He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.

"It must also take place without any foreign interference," a representative of Siatani said about choosing a new PM, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the process to choose a new government.

The burning of Iran's consulate in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Iraq's Shi'ite clergy, and subsequent killings of protesters by security forces in southern cities paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.

Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down on Friday last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.

Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.

Iraq's two main allies, the United States and Iran, have acted as power brokers in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, although Tehran's allies have mostly dominated state institutions since then.

Iranian officials including the powerful commander of its Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, stepped in to prevent Abdul Mahdi's resignation in October, Reuters reported.

President Barham Salih officially has 15 days - until Dec. 16 - to name a new premier tasked with forming a government that would be approved by parliament up to a month later.

Iraqi lawmakers say they will then move to hold a general election next year.

Protesters complain that without a new, fully representative electoral law and unbiased electoral commission, a snap vote will change nothing and keep veteran, corrupt politicians in power.