Iraq's Sistani urges early elections to avert political crisis
Amid delays in finding a new prime minister, the 89-year-old urged lawmakers to "form a new government as soon as possible," according to his representative Abdel Mahdi al-Kerbalai.
"The quickest and most peaceful way out of the current crisis and to avoid plunging into the unknown, chaos or internal strife ... is to rely on the people by holding early elections," said the representative of Sistani, who never appears in public.
Iraq has been rocked by anti-government protests since 1 October, the worst wave of unrest since the 2003 US-led invasion ended the reign of dictator Saddam Hussein.
The demonstrators have condemned the corruption that riddles the government, as well as a lack of jobs, demanding the ouster of the entire political class.
About 460 people have been killed and 25,000 wounded by security forces and government-allies armed groups in Baghdad and the Shia-majority south, in a protracted show of violence Amnesty International called a "campaign of terror".
Iraq's deeply divided parliament has been struggling to replace premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, who quit in November in the face of the mass protests and after the death toll mounted.
Parliament had been due to propose a new candidate by the end of Thursday.
But as parliamentary blocs remained deeply split, a source within the presidency said authorities had agreed to push the deadline back to Sunday, after Iraq's Friday-Saturday weekend.
Ahead of the deadline, several names were being circulated as possible premiers, including the outgoing Higher Education Minister, Qusay Al-Suhail.
Al-Suhail and other contenders are all considers regime insiders and will therefore likely be met with resistance from protesters.
Al-Suhail is also said to be Iran's choice for the leadership.
Demonstrations have also opposed the growing influence of Iran in Iraqi affairs, the far-reaching extent of which was recently revealed by a cache of leaked Iranian intelligence documents.
Agencies contributed to this report.