Image: Nouri al-Maliki, Mohammad Reza Rahimi
Vahid Salemi  /  AP
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, front left, walks along with Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, right, during an official welcoming ceremony in Tehran on Monday, Oct. 18, 2010.
updated 10/18/2010 5:56:52 PM ET 2010-10-18T21:56:52

Iran gave its clearest nod of support to Iraq's prime minister Monday as he seeks to line up backing from key neighbors in his bid to remain in office after a more than seven-month political limbo in Baghdad.

Iran plays a critical role in Iraqi affairs and the Shiite-led coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is making his first visit to Tehran since Iraq's indecisive March elections.

Iran has the power to sway al-Maliki's political fortunes through its deep ties to Iraq's major Shiite factions, which have dominated government offices and security forces since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Iran's arch foe Saddam Hussein in 2003.

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Al-Maliki's coalition is close to securing enough allies for a majority in parliament despite finishing second in March elections behind a Sunni-backed bloc. But al-Maliki is also busy sending out feelers around the region to weigh his support.

The signals from Iran seemed strong.

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Rauf Sheibani said al-Maliki was "one of the suitable choices" to lead the next Iraqi government — the clearest indication that Tehran wants al-Maliki to stay in power.

Sheibani was quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency as citing al-Maliki's experience leading Iraq and the current "sensitive conditions" during the withdrawal of the U.S. military.

Later, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iraq to settle its political crisis.

"Formation of a government as soon as possible and establishment of full security are among the important needs of Iraq because development and reconstruction of Iraq ... can't be achieved without these two," state TV quoted Khamenei as telling al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki held meetings with other Iranian officials and was to travel to the Shiite religious center of Qom, where one of al-Maliki's important allies lives in self-exile.

The pact with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was critical for al-Maliki, but it has alarmed Washington because of al-Sadr's former militia ties and his likely demands for key roles in a new government.

Al-Maliki also could be urging Iran to pressure Iraq's biggest Shiite political party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, to join his coalition. The Iranian-backed Supreme Council has been the main Shiite holdout on al-Maliki's effort to remain in power and could be working for an alternative choice as government leader — possibly Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

The United States has not publicly endorsed any candidate to lead Iraq, but has repeatedly stressed the need for the next government to represent all of Iraq's groups. These include members of the Sunni-backed group that narrowly won the March elections but was unable to cobble together a parliament majority to replace al-Maliki.

But the head of the bloc, Ayad Allawi, has strongly denounced Iran as trying to destabilize Iraq and steer its political process.

"I won't be begging Iran to agree upon my nomination," Allawi told the Al-Arabiya satellite TV channel on Sunday in a clear jab at al-Maliki.

He added that Iran should get out of Iraqi politics and "not impose or support one faction over the other."

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington was also worried about what he called Iranian "meddling" in the formation of a new Iraqi government.

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"We are concerned about any neighboring country that would meddle in Iraq's affairs," Crowley said. "Ultimately, this has to be an Iraqi decision as part of its own political process. ... We would expect the Iraqi government to work on behalf of its own citizens rather than on behalf of another country."

Allawi has threatened to boycott the next government if al-Maliki remains in office, which could open wider rifts between Iran and Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Al-Maliki met with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman before heading to Tehran, but the Jordanian monarch withheld public endorsement for al-Maliki for a second term.

Even if al-Maliki appears to have backing from Iran, he desperately wants support from Sunnis, too — in part because of strong pressure from the United States. He will visit the Sunni-dominated nations of Turkey and Egypt next week.

Al-Maliki was greeted by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki after landing at the Tehran airport. He also met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

IRNA said al-Maliki will travel to Qom, a holy city 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of the Tehran. The report didn't give details, but it is expected to include talks with the cleric al-Sadr.

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