An Iranian-based Shiite Muslim cleric on Sunday published a religious edict that could undermine efforts to unseat the Iraqi prime minister and also signaled Iran's growing influence over Iraq's politics.
The ruling was issued by Ayatollah Kazim al-Haeri, spiritual mentor of anti-American Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In recent weeks, al-Sadr has aligned himself with opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is facing mounting allegations from members of his broad unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds that he is monopolizing power.
The prime minister's critics are trying to gather enough backing to bring him down with a no-confidence vote in parliament.
In a religious ruling published Sunday, al-Sadr's spiritual mentor, al-Haeri, who lives in Iran, said it is forbidden to vote for secular politicians in Iraq's government _ an apparent reference to al-Maliki's opponents. Al-Sadr's followers hold 40 seats in the 325-member parliament and are part of the ruling coalition. Their support would be crucial to any attempts to unseat al-Maliki in a no-confidence vote.
Later Sunday, despite the edict, al-Sadr issued a statement calling on al-Maliki to step down.
"I have to tell him, 'do the right thing and announce your resignation, for the sake of a nation that just needs a few crumbs to live on and for the sake of partners who only need partnership,'" al-Sadr said in a statement, referring to the prime minister.
Despite the strident tone of the statement, it appeared unlikely al-Sadr would go against the wishes of his spiritual mentor. The statement was seen as a possible face-saving device, since it put the onus on the prime minister and did not say whether al-Sadr would still be part of efforts to topple al-Maliki.
Majority Shiite Iran has close ties to Baghdad's Shiite-dominated government as well as leading clerics in Iraq, prompting frequent complaints of meddling from Iraq's minority Sunni politicians.
Iraq's political crisis began almost as soon as al-Maliki formed his unwieldy coalition in late 2010, nine months after general elections. His coalition partners, key among them the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc, have complained that he has reneged on power-sharing promises made during coalition talks.
There is mounting concern that the continued political paralysis will re-ignite sectarian tensions or lead to Iraq's political disintegration.