3 Iraqi Shiite Groups Form Election Alliance

By Jonathan Finer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 28, 2005

BAGHDAD, Oct. 27 -- Three of Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim religious parties on Thursday formed a reshuffled alliance to field a slate in December's legislative elections, raising the prospect that balloting will once more break along ethnic and sectarian lines.

The agreement was reached after the Shiite alliance reportedly had been on the verge of splintering in recent days. The two parties that control Iraq's transitional government -- Dawa, led by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- will now work with political affiliates of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr. Sadr has a strong following among young, poor Shiites, but until recently he had rejected politics and referred to the last elections as illegitimate because of the U.S. occupation.

Vying against the Shiite coalition will be a second ticket, comprising the two main Kurdish parties, and a third bloc announced Wednesday by three Sunni Arab groups, which decided to participate in the elections after boycotting balloting for the transitional legislature last January.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and some Iraqi politicians had hoped the December elections would move beyond the divisive politics that stalled the formation of a transitional cabinet for more than three months earlier this year and deadlocked negotiations on the draft constitution that was endorsed by an Oct. 15 referendum.

"The hope was that they would begin to identify themselves as Iraqis with issues, rather than Iraqis with an ethnic background," said a Western official in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said that "if the current landscape holds up, the election will be decided purely along sectarian lines and there will have been no progress."

Twenty-five members of a Shiite security force were killed Thursday in a Sunni-majority village southeast of Baghdad in a clash that illustrated the deep division between Shiite and Sunni Arabs. The security force had been sent to the village of Nahrawan to search for a kidnapped government employee, according to Capt. Ahmed Kadhum, an army intelligence officer.

The force had been drawn from the Interior Ministry's Karrar Brigade commando unit and Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, according to Kadhum and Mustafa Yacoubi, a spokesman for Sadr.

Elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. military reported Thursday that three soldiers were killed Wednesday when roadside bombs struck their vehicles. One soldier died and four were injured in Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, when a bomb exploded and small-arms fire erupted as their patrol passed, and two soldiers were killed when a bomb exploded near their convoy in eastern Baghdad.

Under Iraqi election law, voters endorse slates of parties, which vary across the country's 18 provinces, rather than backing individual candidates. Seats in the December elections will be awarded to groups in proportion to their share of the vote. Friday is the deadline for parties to register their groupings. The assemblage of political coalitions in recent days came after weeks of backroom negotiations and lobbying sessions by political elites at evening meals of rice and mutton that break the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Members of the Shiite majority have dominated Iraqi politics since January, controlling roughly 140 seats in the country's 275-seat transitional legislature. The addition of the Sadr supporters surprised many political observers because the cleric's militia had recently clashed in southern Iraq with members of the Badr Organization, a militia tied to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

"There is a lot of animosity between the two groups," Nadhmi said. "If it holds together, that will be a formidable grouping."

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