Aides: Iraq’s prime minister gets strong boost from Shiite cleric

By Qasssim Abdul-zahra, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

Aides: Iraqi Shiite cleric backs al-Maliki

BAGHDAD — Powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has agreed to support the bid by Iraq’s prime minister to retain power, aides said Friday, in a move that could speed an end to the seven-month political impasse and bring dealmaking that may give key concessions to al-Sadr’s anti-American bloc.

The decision by al-Sadr would mark a significant boost for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led coalition to secure enough parliament seats to form a new government.

Iraq has been in political limbo since March elections, won by a Sunni-backed bloc but without the majority needed to oust al-Maliki.

U.S. military officials say the power vacuum is encouraging a spike in attacks by Sunni insurgents trying to humiliate authorities and tap into public frustration. The uncertainties also have hindered Iraq’s efforts to lure badly needed foreign investment and get domestic reconstruction plans off the drawing boards.

Three senior al-Sadr aides told The Associated Press that a formal announcement on backing al-Maliki’s coalition is expected later Friday.

A top official for al-Maliki’s bloc confirmed that a joint press conference is planned with al-Sadr envoys to “announce the name of the nominee.”

They all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to brief reporters.

Al-Sadr’s move apparently sets aside past animosity with al-Maliki for a chance to gain a greater voice in a possible new government. Al-Sadr — who has been in self-exile in Iran since 2007 — has denounced al-Maliki’s government for its close ties to Washington and a joint security pact that allows U.S. military presence through at least the end of next year.

In 2008, a joint US-Iraqi offensive broke the grip of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in its Baghdad stronghold.

Al-Sadr’s bloc won 39 seats in March elections. Even that — combined with al-Maliki’s coalition — would fall short of the 163 seats needed for a majority in the 325-seat parliament.

Kurdish leaders, who are widely expected to throw their weight behind al-Maliki if they sense he can hold on to his post, had no immediate comment.

The Kurds, who control a semiautonomous northern enclave, have generally remained on the sidelines in the political maneuvering since March elections, which were narrowly won by Sunni-supported bloc led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Allawi has insisted he must lead the next government, but has been unable to draw in enough political partners for a parliamentary majority.

A senior lawmaker with Allawi’s bloc, Osama al-Nujaifi, said an al-Sadr alliance with the government “will definitely complicate the situation.”

Iraq’s majority Shiites have dominated Iraq’s political and security leadership since after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 — which ended decades of Sunni privileges under Saddam Hussein.

The United States has not publicly supported any candidate for prime minister but has said the new government must reflect all of Iraq’s various groups. Earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden made a round of calls to Iraqi leaders including Allawi and al-Maliki.

Underscoring the dangers, a roadside bomb exploded and killed at least three people, including two members of an anti-insurgent militia, and wounded seven others in a mostly Sunni district of southern Baghdad, according to police and hospital officials.

In the northern city of Mosul, gunmen killed a policeman and a roadside bomb killed an Iraqi soldier on foot patrol, police said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to reporters.

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