Key Iraqi Cleric Rejects U.S. Bid For Moderate Political Bloc

By Nancy Trejos and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 24, 2006

BAGHDAD, Dec. 23 -- Iraq's most revered Shiite Muslim cleric has rejected calls for a U.S.-backed effort to form a bloc of moderate Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders to isolate extremists in the government, Shiite leaders said Saturday.

Members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite coalition in parliament, said they discussed the bloc with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani during a two-hour meeting at his home in Najaf on Saturday.

U.S. leaders say that such a bloc, proposed by national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley in a leaked Nov. 8 White House memo, would dampen the influence of firebrand Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr by bolstering his political rivals.

Sistani's endorsement of the proposal was considered key. But during the meeting, Shiite leaders said, Sistani called on them to keep the 130-member United Iraqi Alliance intact.

"Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani is against any coalition that might weaken the United Iraqi Alliance," said Hasan Suneid, a Shiite lawmaker with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party.

Maliki and the Dawa party, part of the United Iraqi Alliance, have been unenthusiastic about the proposal from the beginning because they believe that isolating Sadr would exacerbate tensions. Maliki is beholden to Sadr, who supported his bid to become prime minister.

In recent days, spokesmen for Sistani have denied media reports that he had tentatively approved the coalition and said he was neither supporting nor opposing it and was interested simply in keeping Shiites united.

Basher al-Assadi, a deputy to Sistani, said the cleric "has not given his blessing to the new alliance because it is not complete, as other forces have been excluded from it."

Abdul Karim al-Inazi, another member of the Dawa party, said the leaders do not want to exclude Sadr from the political process. Sadr controls 30 seats in parliament. "We believe the Sadr trend is one of the important blocs," Inazi said. "They are present, and we do not want any group to be weakened."

To some extent, Sadr has already isolated himself from other Shiite leaders, some of whom consider him too confrontational. Last month, he ordered his loyalists to withdraw from parliament to protest Maliki's decision to meet in Jordan with President Bush.

Shortly after ending their discussion with Sistani on Saturday, the Shiite leaders visited Sadr at his home in Najaf and urged him to allow his loyalists to return to government.

Haidar al-Ubadi, a senior official of the Dawa party, said, "Our brothers in the Sadr bloc are on their way to returning to the government and the parliament."

But other participants said Sadr's response was not definitive and more discussions were needed. "I hope that this crisis will be over soon, just after one or two meetings with his eminence and the Sadr bloc," Inazi said.

Meanwhile, the southern city of Samawah remained under curfew a day after clashes between Iraqi forces and Shiite militiamen loyal to Sadr, in which five people were killed and 17 were wounded, the Associated Press reported.

Southwest of Baghdad, a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb Saturday while delivering supplies, the U.S. military said. A separate roadside blast killed one U.S. soldier and wounded four others on patrol southeast of the capital, the Associated Press reported. In Diyala province, four police officers were killed in clashes with armed groups, local police said.

Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondent Waleed Saffar in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company