- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Moderate Iraqi politicians are holding closed-door talks aimed at forming a new political coalition to lead the country, free from the influence of Shi’ite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqi officials say the chief goal of the new parliamentary grouping would be to end the sectarian killings that are destroying Iraq’s multiethnic society.

Shi’ite death squads, many of them loyal to the radical Sheik al-Sadr, have been rampaging through Sunni neighborhoods, killing men, women and children.

The killings typically are carried out in revenge for Sunni bomb attacks and killings of residents in Shi’ite communities. The cycle of violence has left thousands of civilians dead every month.

Early today, a suicide bomber killed 40 and wounded 34 in central Baghdad, wire services reported.

“We have to organize a new coalition from the moderates — Kurd, Sunni and Shi’ite — to help Iraq and Iraqis get rid of the sectarian polarization,” said one Iraqi official who asked to remain anonymous because of the nature of the talks.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, have agreed to be part of the coalition, the official said.

Mr. al-Hakim recently met with President Bush in Washington, in talks described last week as good by SCIRI representative Human Hamoudi. Mr. al-Hashemi planned to be in Washington this week, according to the Associated Press.

“People are trying to form a moderate cross-sectarian bloc,” said another government official, who also asked that his name not be used because of his political connections.

“Deep down, this is the anti-Sadr coalition. It is intended to sideline Sadr. He will cause problems, but if the real leaders in Iraq realized the power that they have, then Sadr could be sidelined within a few months,” he said.

Neither official would say whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would remain in power if the negotiations are successful, or how much pressure would be placed on Sheik al-Sadr, whose followers recently walked out of parliament and the Cabinet.

“Some of the Iraqi parties want him out because what the Sadrists are doing is very bad, but I am for a containment policy, where all the parties can contain the extremists,” the first official said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow denied reports that the expected political shift would oust Mr. al-Maliki.

“There is no move afoot to dump him,” Mr. Snow said. “Furthermore, last week’s meetings with Mr. al-Hakim were designed to bolster the Maliki government by putting together a group of moderates.”

Analysts question whether Mr. al-Hakim, who is heavily influenced by Iran, can bring moderate Sunnis to his side and renew the political process quickly enough to regain control of the Iraqi streets.

“They are not moving fast enough to overcome the really disruptive effects of the insurgency and sectarian warfare. It really is a race against time,” said Phebe Marr, a member of the Iraq Study Group.

Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commanding general of Multinational Corps-Iraq, told Pentagon reporters by teleconference from Baghdad that a critical step in bringing more Sunnis into the political fold would be to hold provincial elections.

“In some of the provinces, we have an overrepresentation of Shi’ites on the provincial council,” Gen. Chiarelli said. “So I happen to believe that’s a critical element in the next year.”

Analysts say the Iraqi system is so fractured that it will be difficult to get a government in which all interests will work together and have some degree of power.

Sheik al-Sadr has a large following among young, radical Shi’ites, but it is not clear how much control he has over individual Shi’ite gangs.

“If there is a new alignment that creates a stronger center of gravity and a more effective government, that would be a very good thing,” Mrs. Marr said.

• Rowan Scarborough and Joseph Curl contributed to this article.

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