New Shiite alliance minus Maliki

BAGHDAD: Major Shiite groups have formed a new alliance that will exclude the Iraqi prime minister, lawmakers said Monday, a step likely to stoke fears of increasing Iranian influence and shake up the political landscape before January parliamentary elections.

The coalition will include the largest Shiite party, the Iranian-backed Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, or SIIC, and anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc, as well as some small Sunni and secular parties.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party was left out after the sides disagreed over leadership and other organizational issues as well as the Shiite politician's desire to broaden the coalition to include more prominent Sunnis and Kurds, officials said.

A strong showing by the new alliance in January's election would ensure the domination of Iraqi politics by Shiite religious parties that are viewed with suspicion by the Sunni Muslim minority, which lost its grip on power when Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime collapsed in 2003.

Monday's announcement represented a major realignment in the Iraqi political scene, which has been dominated by the Supreme Council and al-Maliki's Dawa Party since Saddam's overthrow.

The split between the rival Shiite camps is a new setback for al-Maliki's election hopes after his effort to portray himself as a champion of security was battered by a series of devastating bombings in Baghdad and in northern Iraq in recent weeks. The most recent struck the foreign and finance ministries on Wednesday, killing about 100 people.

An aide to al-Maliki congratulated the new alliance but said Dawa was seeking a wider spectrum of political parties, tribal leaders and other officials.

"We have no strategic differences with them, but we argued with them about the mechanism of participation in the alliance and the need to open this alliance to include a broad range of political powers," Hassan al-Sineid said in televised remarks.

The announcements were a rare public show of Shiite disunity, but both sides were careful not to appear to be at odds and to stress the possibility that Dawa could still join the alliance.

"We are hoping for their participation and the door will be left open for them," said ex-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who joined the alliance at the head of a bloc he recently formed.

Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a top SIIC member, also reached out to Dawa, saying it was important to present a strong united front that can address the overwhelming challenges facing the country.

Al-Maliki's aides have said the prime minister was working to form a broad-based, national coalition that he could lead in the January vote in a bid to end sectarian politics. The inclusion of Sunnis in the Shiite-led alliance announced Monday and his own battered image could force him to reconsider.

Talks were under way between al-Maliki and the main Sunni Awakening Council leader in Anbar province, Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, on forming their own alliance along with others to compete in January's vote, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to disclose the information.

The coalition will replace the United Iraqi Alliance, which won control of parliament in the last parliamentary elections in December 2005 but began to unravel later with the withdrawal of two major factions and the bitter rivalry between al-Maliki and the Supreme Council.

Members of the groups joining the list stood one-by-one at a news conference to announce the new list.

Al-Jaafari, al-Maliki's predecessor, read a statement, noting that the ailing leader of the Supreme Council, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, was absent because he has been hospitalized in Iran.

"We wished that al-Hakim could be with us, but he is sick," al-Jaafari said. "We pray he will feel better soon but he will be with us spiritually," al-Jaafari said.

Al-Hakim, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, has wielded enormous influence since the 2003 U.S. invasion, maintaining close ties to both the Americans and his Iranian backers.

He has groomed his son, Ammar, as his successor. Ammar al-Hakim also missed the news conference because he had rushed to Iran as his father's health deteriorated, officials said.

Al-Jaafari said the new alliance would be focused on rebuilding the economy and security in Iraq.

Also absent was al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran. His bloc was represented by lawmakers and officials.

The list included several Sunnis, comprising a small faction from the western Anbar province that includes fighters who joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq and won several seats in provincial elections earlier this year.

"Al-Qaida announced their Islamic state and we managed to topple them," said the leader of the Anbar faction, Sheik Hameed al-Hais. "We call on the new alliance to be serious in dealing with security in Iraq."

Ex-Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a one-time Pentagon favorite who leads the secular Iraqi National Congress, is also in the new alliance.

The Supreme Council lost control of major southern provinces to an alliance led by al-Maliki in the Jan. 31 provincial elections, raising concern among other Shiite politicians that internal divisions could cost them seats in January's parliamentary elections.

If the alliance does well, Tehran could gain deeper influence in Iraq just as U.S. forces begin to withdraw. The last American soldier is scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

Many Sunnis consider the Supreme Council as little more than an instrument of Iranian policy. The party was founded in Iran in the early 1980s with the help of Tehran's ruling clergy and its militia fought alongside the Iranians against Iraq in the 1980-88 war.