BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Thursday unveiled a coalition of religious, secular and tribal parties that will run in parliamentary elections this winter, putting himself in competition with a faction of fellow Shiite Muslims who were once his allies.
The split between Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, was unthinkable four years ago. At that time, the country's Shiite religious majority stood united in a bid to solidify its control of Iraq after years of suffering under the Sunni-dominated regime of the late dictator Saddam Hussein.
Both Maliki and his rivals in SIIC are seeking to portray their movements as nationalist and not defined by the sectarian politics that previously dragged the country to the brink of collapse.
The birth of the State of Law coalition "represents a historic milestone and development in establishing a modern Iraq built on peaceful, nationalist principles," Maliki said in his speech announcing his group's formation.
At least 39 political groups joined with the Dawa Party. Many of the politicians were familiar faces from the Shiite parliament bloc that prevailed in 2005 national elections, and which Maliki has now left behind. Others were Sunni Arab tribal leaders from several provinces.
Sheiks, men in smart suits and turbaned clerics were among the crowd gathered at the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad's high-security Green Zone. There were also female candidates in veils and others in Western blouses and slacks. Christian clergy hobnobbed. A giant banner with a scale of justice hung over the stage, where Maliki presented his bloc.
SIIC had announced its own coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, in late August. That bloc includes many prominent Shiite parties and politicians as well as a smaller number of Sunni tribal leaders. SIIC had hoped to bring Maliki within its fold, but the prime minister balked when the group would not promise him his current post.
SIIC had offered to continue negotiations with Maliki, but the prime minister's followers see its slate as weak and filled with too many personalities associated with the country's nadir in the early years after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.
Those figures include former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, whose term in 2005 was marked by Iraq's slide into sectarian war, and Ahmad Chalabi, a polarizing figure on account of his involvement in the purging of Hussein-era civil servants from the government.
Those close to Maliki said his Dawa Party could not have joined a bloc virtually identical to the Shiite list from 2005 and succeeded in charting a new course.
Sunnis "would view themselves as guests, not founders," said Sami Askari, a Shiite lawmaker close to Maliki. "The problem is still there. The people in the street look at [the SIIC's bloc] as a Shiite alliance."
Although Maliki attracted some prominent Sunni personalities to his list, the most sought-after -- such as Sheik Ahmed abu Risha, one of the most powerful figures in the western province of Anbar, or members of the Arab nationalist Hadba slate in Nineveh province in the north -- have held out.
Among the Sunni figures joining Maliki was Sheik Ali Hatem Sulaiman, from the largest tribal group in Anbar, the former heart of Iraq's Sunni insurgency. Sulaiman, like other tribal sheiks who have sought a common understanding with Maliki, views the prime minister as representing the best of the Shiite religious parties who rose to power after 2003.
"The Iraqi tribal leaders . . . decided the most nationalist patriotic personality is Maliki," Sulaiman said. "He is the best of those available."
Maliki, who became prime minister in 2006, has seen his political fortunes soar in the last two years. His decision to successfully challenge the militia of a former backer, Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, for control of the southern port of Basra in March 2008 reinvented him as a defender of the law and allowed him to take credit for security gains in Baghdad.
He soon eclipsed his Shiite rivals in popularity and in January campaigned for provincial elections as a defender of all Iraqis, who did not discriminate based upon sect.
It remains to be seen whether Maliki and other political figures, both Sunni and Shiite, will really be able to leave behind the sectarian politics that have defined Iraq since 2003. While the prime minister's government has reached an understanding with some Sunni leaders, it has backed the detention of other political and paramilitary figures.
Those around Maliki predict a rise in tensions between his slate and SIIC in the coming months. Shiite independent lawmaker Jabr Habeeb Jabr said the prime minister's rivals in parliament might try to discredit him by bringing in his ministers for grueling questioning.
"We will pass through difficult times until the election," Jabr said.
Staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Usama Redha contributed to this report.