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Anti-American cleric vies for more power in Iraq

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By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and LARA JAKES
The Associated Press
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 2:22 AM

BAGHDAD -- A Muslim cleric who once used a militia to resist the American invasion positioned himself as a big winner in Iraq's monthslong political deadlock Friday when his party threw its support behind the beleaguered prime minister.

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The hard-line Shiite group led by Muqtada al-Sadr called it the start of its ascent to nationwide power - a specter sure to spook the United States.

Washington considers the cleric a threat to Iraq's shaky security and has long refused to consider his movement a legitimate political entity. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be unable to govern without him.

March elections failed to produce a clear winner and left the nation in turmoil - a power vacuum that U.S. military officials say has encouraged a spike in attacks by Sunni insurgents.

Final agreement on how to form the new government could still be weeks if not months away, but "the Sadrist acceptance of al-Maliki as prime minister could begin to break the logjam," said Iraq expert Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

In a late-night appearance on state-run TV, al-Maliki thanked his fellow Shiite allies for the support that will likely hand him another term as prime minister.

"I promise them and all beloved Iraqi people that we will take care with the big, heavy responsibility of serving all Iraqis," al-Maliki said.

It is still too soon for him to declare victory, however, because his chief rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, continues to scramble for support.

Shiite leaders from the Fadhila party and the devout Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council met late Friday night to discuss the political developments with Deputy Prime Minister Rafia al-Issawi, a lawmaker with Allawi's Sunni-dominated Iraqiya coalition. Iraqiya won the most parliament seats in the March 7 vote, narrowly beating al-Maliki's coalition, but neither side has the 163-seat majority needed to control the government outright.

Allying with al-Maliki poses a political risk for al-Sadr among his followers, many of whom hate the prime minister, and the cleric's top aides refused Friday to publicly explain why he did it. The most that Sadrist lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie would say is that both camps now seek to "open dialogue with the other winning political groups to form the government."

But it is clear to Iraqi and U.S. officials that al-Sadr seeks unfettered and increased influence in the next government if al-Maliki comes out on top.

The cleric, whose militia once ran death squads out of the health ministry headquarters in Baghdad to target Sunnis, has been in self-imposed exile in Iran since 2007.


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