Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani Image Credit: Reuters

Political paralysis continues in Iraq as it remains without a government since the March parliamentary elections. With the holy month of Ramadan fast approaching, chances are that it will remain without one until September. The US, however, is set to withdraw all combat troops at the end of August; Obama and his administration want a government before that withdrawal and it is desperate for results.

Obama has become so desperate that he has turned to an influential figure within Iraq: Foreign Policy magazine reported on Thursday that the US president sent a personal letter to the influential and powerful Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, urging him to intervene and resolve the impasse.

At times of political crises, Iraq's clergy have proven to be useful; it was Ayatollah Al Sistani who pushed for the landmark open-voting system in the parliamentary elections, much to the dismay of Iraq's politicians but to the delight of their constituents; and it was Al Sistani who intervened, with positive results, on key democratic and constitutional issues, as well as the US-Iraq status of forces agreement.

Staying out of it

The clerical establishment, however, has been careful to not get its hands dirty. Back in May, it was astute enough to stay clear of a political agreement among elements of the major Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which gave the establishment the final say over any disputes between them.

Like he did with that agreement, Al Sistani may choose to stay clear of the somewhat tainted game of political bargaining and government formation. The clerical establishment may do well, actually, to reject the possibility of getting heavily involved lest it associates its name with what is likely to be a dysfunctional government.

Although the full contents of the letter is not known, what is certain is that it does not contain any specific reference or guidance as to how or in what manner Al Sistani should intervene. The current impasse in Iraq is primarily the result of a failure to achieve consensus on the next prime minister of the country.

Major Shiite groupings the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists, who belong to the INA coalition, as well as the Sunni-dominated Iraqi National Movement of Eyad Allawi, reject another Nouri Al Maliki premiership, who recently "froze" his candidacy for the role until his competitors come up with a compromise candidate; a bluff, of course, that may succeed since the INA is itself internally divided on the issue.

Out of the question

The intricacies are, therefore, such that if any intervention from the clerical establishment is to have any effective outcome, then it must actually choose the next premier. This, however, would be out of the question, since it would diminish altogether the sensitive line between religion and politics (which Al Sistani has been careful to avoid), and any political groupings that consequently suffer could challenge the legitimacy of such a manoeuvre and this would most likely lead to irreparable violence and upheaval.

The letter from Obama to Al Sistani should simply be seen as the US pulling out all the stops for an Iraqi government. However, should it fail in its objective, which is quite likely, then it could be yet another depressing sign of Washington's diminishing influence in the country.

Ranj Alaaldin is a Middle East political and security risk analyst based at the London School of Economics and Political Science.