The parliament bloc loyal to influential cleric Muqtada Sadr walked out of Iraq’s ruling Shiite coalition Saturday, further aggravating rifts inside the country’s largest religious sect and loosening the alliance’s grip on power.
The decision left Prime Minister Nouri Maliki with a razor-thin majority in the 275-member parliament. Some officials insisted that the Sadr camp’s departure had freed his alliance to act more aggressively on legislation sought by the United States, including an oil law. Maliki’s opponents said he could lose his job within months.
The Sadr pullout peeled away 30 parliament seats from the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, or UIA, reducing it to 83 seats, a dramatic drop from the 140 seats it won in parliament during Iraq’s first post-Saddam Hussein election.
The Sadr camp had yanked its six ministers from the Cabinet in April over Maliki’s failure to endorse a fixed timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. On Saturday, Sadr loyalists trumpeted their resistance to the Americans in justifying the departure from a coalition that had guaranteed political dominance for the long-suffering Shiite Muslim population for nearly three years.
In leaving, they sought to present themselves as Iraq’s true patriots -- unlike their fellow Shiite politicians, who remained allies of America.
“The main problem in Iraq now is the occupation, and the solution is to have a timetable for the withdrawal of occupiers, and anyone who agrees with us on this demand will find our hearts opened to him,” lawmaker Nassar Rubaie said.
The ruling alliance was engineered in late 2004 by senior clerics with the goal of securing Shiites’ right to power. Shiite leaders had managed to keep unity among the community’s fractious political parties, but that changed Saturday night.
“The UIA has started breaking down. They were the biggest bloc at the parliament, but not anymore,” said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, the spokesman for the largest Sunni political bloc, which withdrew from Maliki’s Cabinet in August. “Maybe the government will be changed within four months.”
Shiite officials were adamant that Maliki would be able to weather Sadr’s defection as long as the Kurds, with their 58 parliament seats, stayed loyal to him.
And they suggested that Maliki, no longer burdened by Sadr, would have firmer control of his dwindling bloc to squeeze bills through parliament in alliance with the Kurds.
For their part, Sadr’s supporters might hope to topple Maliki by making common cause with other blocs, including the Sunni Arabs. But even though they share the goal of a strong central government, it is difficult to see the Sadr camp embracing Sunni lawmakers, rumored to be linked to armed groups. Likewise, the main Sunni parliament bloc harbors deep suspicion about the involvement of Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army, in sectarian strife.
The rupture also raised the possibility that the government would authorize greater force against Sadr’s militia in the south, where his followers are challenging Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party and its main partner, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Sadr aides already are wary of the Iraqi government and Maliki’s authorization of U.S. raids against them in Baghdad. Sadr spokesman Salah Obeidi noted Saturday night that a Sadr aide had just been killed in the southern province of Muthanna, home to an intense rivalry between the Mahdi Army and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The Mahdi Army was accused of killing Muthanna’s governor last month.
Maliki’s decision last month to form a coalition of the Islamic Dawa Party, Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Kurdistan parliament alliance may have pushed the Sadr camp to abandon the United Iraqi Alliance. Maliki advisor Sami Askari said the Mahdi Army was worried that it was being isolated and marginalized after the parties formed their new coalition, which they called the “moderate bloc.”
Another cause of friction was the investigation of the deaths of 52 people in the southern city of Karbala during clashes between Sadr supporters and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s Badr Organization militia on a major religious holiday in late August. The fighting had been widely blamed on the Mahdi Army.
People around Maliki were relieved by the Sadr camp’s withdrawal.
“To be frank, for a long time the Sadrists were outside of the UIA. Their decisions were always not in line with the UIA,” Askari said. “Some UIA members are happy. This makes things clear.”
Another Shiite politician said the Sadr camp had overplayed its hand. The politician, who didn’t want to anger the Sadr supporters, said he thought they had put too much stock in the strength of their militia and had now opened themselves up to their enemies.
“When they pull out of the UIA, they lose the limited immunity that they have. The government, in a way, was protecting them against the Badr Organization,” the politician said. “They attacked Badr a number of times and Badr didn’t retaliate. I think the Americans will now have a free hand in damaging the Mahdi Army’s infrastructure.”
Maliki’s camp also was confident that the Kurds would not abandon the ruling alliance. Askari said the Kurds see that their interests lay in sticking with the Shiite bloc rather than switching to a side that might not back their claims to an autonomous region in the north.
Kurdish parliament member Mahmoud Othman confirmed that the Kurds had no interest in ditching the UIA and Maliki.
“There is no better alternative than Maliki,” he said. “There is no change.”
The anonymous Shiite politician said Maliki needed the Kurds more than ever and would have to respect their wishes on issues such as the city of Kirkuk in the north, which the Kurds want to annex. The Kurds would get more ministries as well.
“Through this formula, the Kurds will play a stronger role than they play today,” he said.
In other developments Saturday, an insurgent group linked to Al Qaeda declared an offensive to coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The offensive was named in honor of Abu Musab Zarqawi, an insurgent leader who was killed by U.S. forces last year, according to the announcement that was posted on an Islamist website. It will last until about Oct. 22.
The declaration was made in the name of Abu Omar Baghdadi, who U.S. military officials say is a fictional character invented to give an Iraqi face to the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization for a number of like-minded Sunni extremist groups. A man, purportedly Baghdadi, read the announcement in a recording posted on the Internet.
As if in answer to the radical Islamist’s message, police said a car bomb was detonated outside a bakery in a Shiite neighborhood of west Baghdad as families prepared to end their daylong fast for Ramadan. Eleven people were killed and 18 wounded.
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed, Mohammed Rasheed, Wail Alhafith and Said Rifai contributed to this report.