- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

BAGHDAD | Major Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups announced a new alliance Monday but excluded the Iraqi prime minister in a rare display of disunity within the country’s majority Islamic sect. The move puts pressure on Nouri al-Maliki to strike a deal with Sunni parties if he hopes to keep his job after January’s parliamentary elections.

The announcement came as bombs on two buses exploded, killing at least 11 in southern Iraq. The blasts were just the latest bombings in recent weeks that have raised fears insurgents are trying to stoke sectarian violence that nearly tore the country apart two years ago.

The party realignment is a major shift in the Iraqi political scene, breaking up a Shi’ite coalition that has dominated Iraq’s government since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The new bloc, called the Iraqi National Alliance, will include the largest Shi’ite party, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, or SIIC, and anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, which both have close ties to Tehran, as well as some small Sunni and secular parties.

If the alliance does well in the Jan. 16 vote, Tehran could gain greater influence in Iraq just as U.S. forces begin to withdraw. The last U.S. soldier is scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

It’s also likely to worry Sunnis who largely consider the Supreme Council as little more than an instrument of Iranian policy — exacerbating sectarian divisions at a time when violence that had waned is again on the rise.

Left outside of the alliance, Mr. al-Maliki appears to be trying to cast himself as a Shi’ite leader who can draw in minority Sunnis and Kurds.

Mr. al-Maliki’s aides have said the prime minister is working to form a broad-based, national coalition in a bid to end sectarian politics.

Mr. al-Maliki’s Dawa Party did not join the new alliance because its leaders would not guarantee that he would remain prime minister if the bloc dominated the election, Shi’ite lawmaker Reda Jawad Taqi told the Associated Press.

One of Mr. al-Maliki’s advisers, Hassan al-Sineid, said the prime minister and the leaders of the new alliance differed over “the mechanism of participation in the alliance and the need to open this alliance to include a broad range of political powers.”

The realignment does not immediately threaten Mr. al-Maliki’s position as prime minister, but portends stormy politics in the election campaign and beyond.

The split of the rival Shi’ite camps is another setback for Mr. al-Maliki’s election hopes after his effort to portray himself as a champion of security was battered by a series of devastating bombings in Baghdad, including attacks that struck the foreign and finance ministries, and in northern Iraq in recent weeks.

The latest violence occurred Monday when bombs attached to two buses exploded minutes apart in the primarily Shi’ite southern city of Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, said Iraqi police Brig. Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdatan.

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