Iraq coalition plan gains urgency

Times Staff Writer

President Bush and top aides have made the effort to build a new governing coalition in Iraq a top priority in their search for a new strategy, one of the country's two vice presidents said Thursday.

Tariq Hashimi, who leads the Iraqi parliament's most important Sunni Arab group, said that Bush and other senior officials told him at a White House meeting this week that they believe "for the present time, the only solution we have" is to create a new ruling alliance in hopes of strengthening a frail central government.

Hashimi's comments, in an appearance at the U.S. Institute of Peace, offered new insight into the importance Bush is placing on the coalition-building effort at a time when the president and top aides are considering new strategies for Iraq.

U.S. and Iraqi advocates of the approach hope it would give Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki a new freedom to take risky actions, such as trying to suppress militia violence. Maliki's freedom to act is believed to be limited by his dependence on radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose Al Mahdi army is blamed for sectarian attacks.

Creation of a new governing coalition also could provide a means for picking a new prime minister if Iraqi and American leaders decide Maliki must be replaced. Some Iraqi advocates of the approach insist that is not their intent.

Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security advisor, wrote a classified memo last month that said the United States should urge Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders to support Maliki if he sought to build a new political base. The United States could help the process by offering cash support to moderate groups that take part, Hadley wrote.

The Iraqi parliament is divided along sectarian lines and includes a large Shiite coalition, along with Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular parties. The new grouping would break up the current Shiite alliance and ally two Shiite parties -- Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- with the two Kurdish parties and possibly smaller religious and secular groupings.

Bush told reporters Wednesday that he had spoken by telephone to two senior Kurdish leaders about the coalition-building idea, "which we support."

Yet the plan faces obstacles.

Maliki has been wary. And it remains unclear whether the approach could win the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite religious leader, who has urged Shiite leaders to stick together.

Allies of Sadr have condemned the plan, and there is a risk of a violent backlash if the coalition tries to exclude Sadr, who now has considerable influence within the Shiite coalition.

Hadley, in his memo, acknowledged the difficulties of forming a coalition and said the task would require the U.S. to "use our own political capital."

Hashimi acknowledged that forming the new grouping could ignite a violent backlash from Sadr's many supporters, who now control 30 of parliament's 275 seats and five Cabinet ministries and have the country's most active Shiite militia.

In comments after his speech, Hashimi said coalition members might devise a way to allow some elements of Sadr's group in the coalition while excluding violent portions.

Juan R. Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan, said he doubted the coalition would have much cohesion because of the continuing splintering of Iraq's political landscape.

"I can't imagine a situation in which you'd get a stable parliamentary coalition that would vote for the prime minister's policies on every issue," he said.

Hashimi, who has been very critical of the Maliki government, promised that he and his group would support the effort but said it would not bring about the wholesale overhaul of the political system that Iraq needs.

He criticized plans under discussion in the U.S. government to shift the U.S. military from combat to an advisory role. That approach, he said, would risk creating a "security vacuum."

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