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Sadr’s party says it won’t run in elections

Times Staff Writers

Members of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr’s political bloc announced Sunday that the group would not compete as a party in coming local elections but would endorse candidates.

The decision appeared aimed at allowing the Sadr movement to play a role in the Iraqi elections despite a government threat to bar the bloc from fielding candidates if it did not first dissolve its militia.

The endorsements “will not be for Sadrists alone, but for individuals, chieftains, people with popularity and talents to serve and offer public services to the people,” said Sadr loyalist and parliament member Haidar Fakhrildeen. “We will support them, we will advise the people to vote for them.”

The Sadr movement, with a few exceptions, did not participate in provincial elections in January 2005. In the coming round, scheduled for fall, it had been expected to do well and perhaps best its main Shiite political rivals, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Islamic Dawa Party.

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However, Sadr loyalists have charged that a spring military campaign in Basra, ordered by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki of the Dawa Party, was an effort to damage their movement’s ability to successfully compete in the fall vote.

The Iraqi parliament has yet to pass an electoral law, and the stalemate could delay balloting. The parliament is divided on whether candidates should compete individually or on party lists, and over whether the law should ban parties with militias from competing. Maliki has been pushing for the ban in what has been widely interpreted as a move against Sadr.

Sadr, whose Mahdi Army fighters have periodically battled with U.S. and Iraqi government forces, has taken steps in recent days to improve his militia’s image. On Friday, the cleric announced that most of his militia members would put down their weapons and that only an elite wing would remain armed for fighting U.S.-led forces.

Observers said Sadr was playing his cards carefully in what could very well be the start of a major drawdown of American forces in Iraq in the fall.

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“His strategy is not to confront the Americans but to wait out their departure, only to emerge stronger to face his rivals, especially SIIC,” said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group think tank, referring to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. “Sadr aims to counter SIIC’s attempts to provoke the Mahdi Army and delegitimize it ahead of the elections by showing its moderate face.”

The policy of endorsing candidates could also minimize the political damage if the election results, either legitimately or through manipulation, favor the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Dawa.

“He wants to assume the role of the dissident outsider,” said Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “At the same time he wants to stay in the system to protect his interests.”

Meanwhile, Iraqi forces continued to surround Amarah, a southern city that is dominated by the Sadr movement. The move, which began Saturday, is aimed at asserting government authority over the area and capturing Sadr loyalists wanted by police.

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Maj. Gen. Tariq Abdul Wahab Jasim told tribal sheiks that wanted individuals who had not killed or hurt anyone would receive amnesty if they surrendered by Wednesday. Amarah residents had until that date to hand in explosives and heavy weapons, according to the government.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

Special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf contributed to this report.

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