Shiite Bloc in Parliament Diminished by Defection

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

BAGHDAD, March 7 -- A small Shiite political party on Wednesday pulled out of the governing Shiite parliamentary bloc that put Iraq's prime minister in power.

The move could lead to more squabbling in a parliament widely seen as paralyzed by sectarian and political differences. Some interpreted the pullout of the Fadhila Party, which holds 15 of the 275 seats, as a sign of growing dissatisfaction with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Fadhila leaders said their withdrawal from the United Iraqi Alliance reflected a desire to defuse sectarian influences in the country's politics.

"The first step to save Iraq from its present crisis is to dismantle this bloc and not to allow the formation of any sectarian blocs in the future," Nadim al-Jabiri, a senior party official, said at a news conference Wednesday.

Violence continued in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country on Wednesday.

Nearly 40 Shiite pilgrims heading to the revered city of Karbala were killed and at least 58 were wounded, according to Brig. Raad al-Tamimi, an Interior Ministry spokesman. The attacks came a day after more than 160 Shiite pilgrims were killed in bombings and other attacks.

In Balad Ruz, in Diyala province in eastern Iraq, a suicide bomber killed at least 25 people at a cafe, Tamimi said.

A car bomb at a checkpoint in southern Baghdad killed 12 Iraqi policemen and 10 civilians, the U.S. military said.

Northwest of Baghdad, three U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb, the military said in a statement. The soldiers were looking for improvised explosives along a busy road when the bomb exploded, the military said.

The Fadhila party, also known as the Islamic Virtue Party, draws its support largely from poor Shiites in the south. The party's most prominent member outside parliament is the governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Waeli.

The party has clashed with other Shiite parties over Fadhila's perception of excessive U.S. interference in Iraqi affairs.

Shiite parties under the umbrella of the United Iraqi Alliance now hold 113 seats. Kurdish parties have 53 seats and Sunni groups have 44. The remaining 50 members are independent or do not belong to sectarian groupings.

Some Shiite politicians played down the significance of Fadhila's retreat.

Ridha Jawad Taqi, a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said Fadhila lawmakers were dissatisfied because no party leader had been assigned to head a ministry. In the protracted discussions that led to the formation of the cabinet in early 2006, party members sought to head the Oil Ministry. Leading a ministry offers a political party the opportunity to exercise power and patronage.

"We will try to start a dialogue to bring them back," Taqi said, later adding: "I find it hard to believe that they will withdraw from the alliance for good."

In November, 30 members of the bloc loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr withdrew from parliament and the government after failing to dissuade Maliki from traveling to Jordan for a meeting with President Bush. They returned in January.

One possible scenario in coming weeks would be an alliance between Fadhila and the Iraqi National List, a group led by secular Shiite and former prime minister Ayad Allawi, which has 25 seats.

"We have had talks with Fadhila and they have indicated that they are interested in cooperating with us," said Adnan Pachachi, a senior member of the National List.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, said he interpreted the move as evidence of growing disapproval of Maliki and the ruling alliance.

"These changes show that neither the Shiite coalition nor the government has been able to improve things and that they are gradually growing weaker," Othman said.

Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni parliament member, said it is too early to tell how the party's withdrawal will alter Iraq's political landscape. But he said the development should be seen as evidence that democracy has taken root in Iraq.

"I still believe that this is a healthy situation in any government -- to have political movement here and there," he said. "With all of the bad situations, this is a positive signal."

Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Mehdawi contributed to this report.

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