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Shiites Offer Unified Slate, but Fault Lines Show

Times Staff Writer

The United Iraqi Alliance, the powerful Shiite electoral slate expected to hold sway in Sunday’s nationwide election, incorporates an impressive cross-section of political forces. Assembled under the guidance of senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Alliance contains at least four legitimate contenders for the post of Iraq’s prime minister.

But the sheer political diversity of the Alliance membership has observers wondering just how long the show of unity can continue among the Shiites, the majority population in Iraq long-oppressed by Saddam Hussein.

The slate, which reads like a who’s who of Iraqi Shiite politics, has gathered groups who seem to have little common ground beyond a desire to benefit from Sistani’s considerable influence.

Composed of members of the Dawa Party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Hezbollah, the Iraqi National Congress and followers of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, the Alliance incorporates not only rival political factions but ideologies that differ on the relationship between religion and state.

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Some observers warn of an almost immediate postelection collapse as the nascent Iraqi political experiment moves into its next phase: the formation of coalitions and alliances within the 275-member national assembly that will be choosing the government’s leaders.

A partial or full collapse of the Alliance could weaken the unified Shiite voice that Sistani has sought for the constitution writing process. In the extreme case, it could also open the door for other slates that win seats in the national assembly, such as a unified Kurdish slate and a group headed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, to cobble together a functional ruling coalition that includes defecting Alliance members.

In that case, the Alliance would not get to select the nation’s prime minister and might also have less sway over jobs and contracts filled by the new government.

A failure of the Alliance to form a ruling coalition not only would be a blow to Sistani’s personal prestige as the slate’s unofficial patron but could prove a demoralizing turn for Iraq’s Shiite majority, many of whom view this election as a long-overdue political ascension. “It will be difficult for us to stay unified. That is expected. There is no real coordination,” said Sheik Ali Merza, head of the Dawa Party’s Najaf office and one of many who foresee fissures between traditional Shiite rivals such as Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

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Voters will cast ballots Sunday for one of 111 party lists. These slates will receive seats in the 275-member assembly according to their portion of the vote. The Alliance list, backed by the powerful Shiite religious leadership, is expected to capture the largest share, though probably not enough to form a ruling coalition on its own. The unified Kurdish slate and Allawi’s slate are also expected to do well.

The national assembly will oversee the drafting of Iraq’s constitution. It will also serve as the transitional government until the constitution is ratified and another national election is held in 2006.

Many predict a quiet but intense struggle within the Alliance for power, influence and key ministerial posts, one that could ultimately weaken the unified Shiite voice that Sistani sought in assembling the list.

“What’s the connection between [the Alliance parties]? Everyone is working for themselves,” said Dr. Alham Kadhim of Najaf’s Women’s Center for Social Development. “Once they get past the elections, it’s over.”

Nijyar H. Shemdin, Washington representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, also predicted a fast revival of standing rivalries. “I have a feeling that they will not stay united,” he said. “I have a feeling that the solidarity will not last after the elections are over because the interests are so diverse.”

During lengthy negotiations to form the list, secular candidates reportedly threatened to walk out unless more moderate voices were added. Tellingly, many of the same partners on the national Alliance list are running against each other in Sunday’s Najaf Provincial Council election.

The bickering and competition already visible in Najaf is a likely harbinger of the political jockeying that will dominate the next few months of Iraqi politics.

The few Alliance candidates loyal to Sadr could prove particularly problematic.

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The young firebrand cleric has, at times, held an openly antagonistic relationship with Sistani and the rest of the Shiite religious hierarchy. Sadr followers tried to lay siege to Sistani’s home on a Najaf back street.

The two have cooperated since August, when Sistani ended a U.S. siege of Najaf by brokering a cease-fire with Sadr’s Al Mahdi army. But they remain rivals.

Disunity among the Shiite partners “is one of the threats facing the list,” said Ibrahim Bahr Uloum, a former minister of oil and an Alliance candidate whose Iraq of the Future ticket is competing with the Supreme Council and Dawa in the Najaf provincial election.

“Locally, there is some room for competition,” he said, “but at the same time on a national level we have to cooperate.”

Uloum predicted that “mutual respect for the marjaiyah” -- the Shiite religious elite of whom Sistani is the most prominent member -- would help keep the factions in line.

But Sistani’s influence may not be enough to restrain the political ambitions of the Alliance candidates once they reach the assembly.

The most immediate point of potential conflict will be the assembly’s choice of prime minister. The assembly will choose a three-member presidential council, a president and two vice presidents. The trio will in turn select a prime minister, although that choice is largely expected to be decided beforehand.

Besides Allawi, who is increasingly seen as a strong contender to retain the prime minister’s post that he was appointed to six months ago, the other politicians viewed as realistic prospects are on the Alliance slate. They are Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution head and former Governing Council member Abdelaziz Hakim, Finance Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, nuclear scientist and Sistani confidante Hussein Shahristani and Ahmad Chalabi, a longtime secularist exile who has cultivated a populist persona since falling out last year with his patrons in the Bush administration.

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An official with one of the Alliance parties, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the various factions had already held meetings seeking to head off disputes on issues such as the selection of a prime minister. The hope is to maintain unity at least through the transitional year.

The official said Mahdi was tentatively slated to fill the job if the Alliance won enough seats to control the ruling coalition. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution-affiliated economist, a religious moderate and an advocate of free-market policies, is regarded as acceptable to most political factions and to the U.S. government.

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor and expert on Shiite politics, predicted that enlightened self-interest would serve as “a powerful incentive for [the Alliance’s] various members to dampen down resentments and rivalries and cooperate.”

“Controlling the Iraqi parliament is worth $17 billion a year in patronage,” he said. “Pulling out of the ruling coalition and depriving yourself of any part of that would be a strange thing to do. Some immature groups might do it out of anger and annoyance, but they’d be very sorry.”

Should there be a breakdown in the Alliance, it would raise the question of just how direct a role Sistani is willing to play in maintaining unity in the group he helped bring together.

The reclusive cleric’s primacy in the formation of the Alliance list and his willingness to allow its candidates to use his likeness in their campaign material indicate he may be willing to help mediate the inevitable disputes and factional turf wars.

Sheik Abdel Amir Turayhi, a mid-level representative of Sistani in Najaf, said the cleric viewed himself as a father figure, not only for the Alliance candidates but for the nation.

“If there are problems in a household, the father has a responsibility to solve them. That’s what the marjaiyah are like,” Turayhi said. “Even if [the Alliance parties] start eating each other, that’s the nature of life. But I don’t believe they will.”

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.


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