- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite cleric withheld support yesterday for a U.S.-backed plan to build a coalition across sectarian lines, Shi’ite lawmakers said, jeopardizing hopes that such a show of political unity could help stem the country’s deadly violence.

Members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shi’ite coalition that dominates parliament, met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf after traveling to the holy city over the past few days.

Ayatollah al-Sistani holds no political post and rarely emerges from his home and adjacent office, but he has strong influence over Shi’ite politics.

Some members of the Shi’ite alliance have sought a coalition that would include Kurds and Sunnis, and sideline Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric whose militia is blamed for much of Iraq’s sectarian violence. Lawmakers who attended the meeting with Ayatollah al-Sistani said the cleric opposed any move that would divide Shi’ites.

“There are obstacles in the face of forming this coalition, because al-Sistani does not support it. So we will work to strengthen the [Shi’ite] alliance,” said Hassan al-Sunnaid, of the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

An official close to Ayatollah al-Sistani, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the cleric “will not bless nor support any new bloc or front. He only supports the unity of the Shi’ites.”

Mr. al-Maliki, the Shi’ite prime minister, had relied heavily on the support of Sheik al-Sadr, whose 30 loyalists in the 275-seat parliament and six ministers in the 38-member Cabinet boycotted politics after Mr. al-Maliki met President Bush in Jordan recently.

In more violence yesterday, six civilians were killed when a mortar shell hit a house in Baqouba, and an Iraqi military intelligence officer was slain in a drive-by shooting south of Baghdad, police said.

U.S.-led forces raided a militant hideout in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, killing one person and detaining nine, and Iraqi forces targeting a cell of the extremist al Qaeda in Iraq group captured seven persons in Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

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