President Obama has sent a letter to Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urging him to prevail upon Iraq's squabbling politicians to finally form a new government, an individual briefed by relatives of the reclusive religious leader said Thursday.
The individual, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the information came from members of Sistani's family in the Iranian holy city of Qom, where Sistani maintains a large complex of seminaries, libraries, clinics, and other humanitarian organizations.
Iraqi factions have sought in vain since the March 7 parliamentary elections to agree on a government to replace that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The impasse is of increasing concern to the United States as it draws down its forces to 50,000 and relinquishes a combat role at the end of this month. There have been a number of violent incidents in Iraq in recent weeks including bombings and shootings that have raised questions about the country's future stability. (Fifteen Iraqis died Thursday; 53 were killed on Wednesday, according to media reports.)
In a speech Aug. 2 before disabled veterans, Obama reiterated that the U.S. mission in Iraq is changing "from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats." In this new phase, the Iraqis are to assume overall responsibility for the country's security, with U.S. intervention in limited circumstances to conduct counter-terrorism operations and to protect Americans. U.S. forces will also continue to train Iraqis and monitor Iraqi air space.
Mike Hammer, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, would not confirm or deny that Obama had sent the letter to Sistani.
"We do not comment on Presidential correspondence," Hammer wrote in an email Thursday.
The letter was delivered to Sistani by a Shiite member of the Iraqi parliament, according to the source briefed by Sistani relatives. He did not identify the individual.
Daniel Serwer, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said that to his knowledge Sistani has never met with a sitting U.S. official -- or at least not acknowledged doing so.
The Sistani-linked source said the letter was sent shortly after Vice President Joseph Biden visited Baghdad over the July 4 weekend and failed to bring about a resolution of the dispute. Biden said at the time that he was "optimistic" that a new government would be formed and that the problems Iraq faced were "not a lot different" than that facing other countries with parliamentary systems.
However, no apparent progress has occurred.