Iraq’s Western-backed prime minister Haider Al-Abadi is facing growing domestic discontent as veiled criticism from the country’s top Shia cleric and violent street protests threaten his attempts to form a new government. The strife is undermining hopes that elections held in May would mark a turning point and set Iraq on the road to recovery after decades of conflict.

In a rare intervention, the office of Ayatollah al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shia cleric, issued a statement urging politicians in power to not run again, a move interpreted as a call for Mr. Abadi to abandon his efforts to remain prime minister. In the past week, the southern city of Basra has been rocked by violence, with 15 people reported killed in protests last week that culminated in the burning of government buildings and the Iranian consulate. While Mr Abadi has been praised for presiding over Iraq’s defeat of the Isis insurgency, many Iraqis are frustrated at a lack of progress on improving basic public services and curbing corruption.

Mr Abadi is acting as caretaker prime minister until a government is formed, but he is aspiring to a second term in office. His Nasr bloc of lawmakers has been negotiating to form a coalition that would have enough seats to elect the prime minister. But he suffered a blow in the wake of the Basra protests when Sairoon, the party of populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, withdrew its support, scuppering an Abadi-led political alliance announced at the beginning of this month. With Mr Abadi in a weakened position, analysts and political officials say there remains no clear favourite for Iraq’s top job.