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The Conflict in Iraq

Shiites Offer Unified Slate, but Fault Lines Show

Sistani's United Iraqi Alliance, with its many rival groups, could face a breakup when a ruling coalition is formed after the national election.

January 29, 2005|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — The United Iraqi Alliance, the powerful Shiite electoral slate expected to hold sway in Sunday's nationwide election, incorporates an impressive cross-section of political forces. Assembled under the guidance of senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Alliance contains at least four legitimate contenders for the post of Iraq's prime minister.

But the sheer political diversity of the Alliance membership has observers wondering just how long the show of unity can continue among the Shiites, the majority population in Iraq long-oppressed by Saddam Hussein.

The slate, which reads like a who's who of Iraqi Shiite politics, has gathered groups who seem to have little common ground beyond a desire to benefit from Sistani's considerable influence.

Composed of members of the Dawa Party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Hezbollah, the Iraqi National Congress and followers of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, the Alliance incorporates not only rival political factions but ideologies that differ on the relationship between religion and state.

Some observers warn of an almost immediate postelection collapse as the nascent Iraqi political experiment moves into its next phase: the formation of coalitions and alliances within the 275-member national assembly that will be choosing the government's leaders.

A partial or full collapse of the Alliance could weaken the unified Shiite voice that Sistani has sought for the constitution writing process. In the extreme case, it could also open the door for other slates that win seats in the national assembly, such as a unified Kurdish slate and a group headed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, to cobble together a functional ruling coalition that includes defecting Alliance members.

In that case, the Alliance would not get to select the nation's prime minister and might also have less sway over jobs and contracts filled by the new government.

A failure of the Alliance to form a ruling coalition not only would be a blow to Sistani's personal prestige as the slate's unofficial patron but could prove a demoralizing turn for Iraq's Shiite majority, many of whom view this election as a long-overdue political ascension. "It will be difficult for us to stay unified. That is expected. There is no real coordination," said Sheik Ali Merza, head of the Dawa Party's Najaf office and one of many who foresee fissures between traditional Shiite rivals such as Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Voters will cast ballots Sunday for one of 111 party lists. These slates will receive seats in the 275-member assembly according to their portion of the vote. The Alliance list, backed by the powerful Shiite religious leadership, is expected to capture the largest share, though probably not enough to form a ruling coalition on its own. The unified Kurdish slate and Allawi's slate are also expected to do well.

The national assembly will oversee the drafting of Iraq's constitution. It will also serve as the transitional government until the constitution is ratified and another national election is held in 2006.

Many predict a quiet but intense struggle within the Alliance for power, influence and key ministerial posts, one that could ultimately weaken the unified Shiite voice that Sistani sought in assembling the list.

"What's the connection between [the Alliance parties]? Everyone is working for themselves," said Dr. Alham Kadhim of Najaf's Women's Center for Social Development. "Once they get past the elections, it's over."

Nijyar H. Shemdin, Washington representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, also predicted a fast revival of standing rivalries. "I have a feeling that they will not stay united," he said. "I have a feeling that the solidarity will not last after the elections are over because the interests are so diverse."

During lengthy negotiations to form the list, secular candidates reportedly threatened to walk out unless more moderate voices were added. Tellingly, many of the same partners on the national Alliance list are running against each other in Sunday's Najaf Provincial Council election.

The bickering and competition already visible in Najaf is a likely harbinger of the political jockeying that will dominate the next few months of Iraqi politics.

The few Alliance candidates loyal to Sadr could prove particularly problematic.

The young firebrand cleric has, at times, held an openly antagonistic relationship with Sistani and the rest of the Shiite religious hierarchy. Sadr followers tried to lay siege to Sistani's home on a Najaf back street.

The two have cooperated since August, when Sistani ended a U.S. siege of Najaf by brokering a cease-fire with Sadr's Al Mahdi army. But they remain rivals.

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