Reporting from Tehran and Baghdad — Iran's supreme leader urged the "speedy formation" of a new Iraqi government at a meeting Monday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who is visiting Tehran as part of a tour of regional countries aimed at securing support for his bid to keep his job.
Maliki's visit underscores Iran's continued role as a major powerbroker in Iraqi affairs and a potential spoiler of the United States' plans to establish a more-inclusive and Western-leaning government.
Iran is urging the quick formation of a new government headed by Maliki, just as American officials have urged a slowdown to allow the Iraqi prime minister time to find ways to include the Sunni-supported coalition headed by Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister and secular Shiite.
"All Iraqi officials, statesmen and Iraq's sympathizers should focus on the speedy formation of the government," said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency.
Iraq has been unable to form a government more than seven months after inconclusive general elections left Allawi's party the narrow winner but without enough clout to form a government.
Both Iran and the U.S. have been backing Maliki's candidacy. The U.S. hopes the prime minister will form a government in partnership with Allawi. Instead, Iran has brokered an alliance between Maliki and the movement led by the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who lives in Iran and is critical of the U.S. role in Iraq.
That alliance still leaves Maliki needing the support of Iraq's Kurds to obtain the necessary parliamentary majority to secure the premiership.
Khamenei described Iran as a neighborly and "brotherly" country to Iraq and blamed the West for its continuing security woes.
"There is still a certain degree of insecurity in Iraq, and this is partly due to the imposition of some powers whose interests lie in insecurities," he said. "May God almighty rid Iraq of the evil of America so that the problems of the people of this country will be solved."
According to Maliki's office, the Iraqi leader thanked Khamenei "for extinguishing the fires of sectarian sedition" in Iraq and restoring "cohesion and brotherhood" between Iraqis, an apparent reference to the deal with Sadr.
At a later meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Maliki called for "an expansion of bilateral relations in all aspects" between Iraq and Iran, according to the Iranian news agency IRNA.
Many Iraqis are dismayed by what they view as Maliki's apparent tilt toward Shiite Iran, and fear that he will now form a Shiite-dominated government that will marginalize Sunnis and rekindle sectarian tensions.
The visit shows that Maliki "is prepared to do anything to please the Iranians just to be able to stay as prime minister for a second time," said Haider Mulla, a spokesman for Allawi's Iraqiya bloc. "He's always trying to tell the Americans that he's against Iranian interference in Iraq, but in reality he's very close to the Iranians."
Maliki's aides point out that he is also visiting Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and the Persian Gulf states in his bid to secure broad support.
Iran appears nonetheless to relish its continued role in Iraq. An editorial in the hard-line Iranian newspaper Quds boasted Monday that "Iraq is considered Iran's first business partner and Iran is considered to be the biggest partner in the region."
Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Danaifar, was quoted by the pro-government Fars news agency as saying that an Iraqi Cabinet would be formed within "one or two weeks."
He also downplayed remarks by Allawi describing Maliki as an Iranian stooge. "Mr. Allawi usually on the eve of trips to foreign countries utters such things, which are old and worn-out declarations," he was quoted as saying.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Sly from Baghdad.