Tehran supports Maliki's bid to hold on to power

Iran gave its clearest nod of support to Iraq's prime minister yesterday as he sought to line up backing from key neighbours in his bid to remain in office after more than seven months of political limbo in Baghdad.

Iran plays a critical role in Iraqi affairs and the Shia-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 Mr Maliki's political fortunes through its deep ties to Iraq's major Shia factions, which have dominated government offices and security forces since the US-led invasion toppled Iran's arch foe Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Maliki was "one of the suitable choices" to lead the next Iraqi government – the clearest indication that Tehran wants Mr Maliki to stay in power.

Mr Sheibani was quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency as citing Mr Maliki's experience leading Iraq and the current "sensitive conditions" during the withdrawal of the US military. Later, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on Iraq to settle its political crisis.

"Formation of a government 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 Mr Khamenei saying to Mr Maliki.