BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sought guidance from Iraq's top cleric on Thursday, as he urged Iraqi politicians to form an inclusive government that can confront a Sunni militant insurgency.
Ban's meeting with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani underscored the 83-year-old cleric's vast sway in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is considered a polarising figure who has fueled sectarian tensions.
A spokesman for Ban told Reuters the United Nations chief was meeting with Sistani in the city of Najaf to seek his wisdom on developments in Iraq.
Sistani has seized his most active role in politics in a decade, asserting dominance over public affairs and demanding politicians choose a new government without delay. His activism could hastening the end of Maliki, who is accused of alienating many Sunnis.
In a land where the army virtually collapsed in the face of Sunni militants who swept through the north and west, and sectarian militias are getting more powerful by the day, Sistani is seen as a voice of reason and guiding light for millions.
Iraqi politicians have been struggling to form a power- sharing government that can confront the Sunni militants who seized large swathes of the north last month and are determined to march on Baghdad. The lightning advance by the Islamic State threatens to tear apart the country, a major OPEC oil producer.
After meeting with Maliki earlier in the day, Ban called on Iraqi politicians to unite and create a government that serves all sects in order to take on what he called an existential threat from the insurgency.
Maliki has ruled since the election in a caretaker capacity, defying demands from the Sunnis and Kurds that he step aside for a less polarising figure. Even some Shi'ite politicians want Maliki to go.
(Reporting by Michael Georgy; Editing by Larry King)