Looming Shi'ite split in Iraq threatens US security pact
Parties' conflict could lead to power struggle
BAGHDAD - A looming split between the two Shi'ite parties that dominate Iraq's government threatens efforts to win parliamentary approval for a security pact with the United States and could set the stage for a major struggle for power in the oil-rich Shi'ite southern heartland.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim have been allies since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.
Now they are rapidly turning into bitter rivals, raising the specter of a weakened Shi'ite front ahead of two key elections next year.
The security agreement, reached after months of tortuous negotiations, would allow US troops to remain here after their UN mandate expires Dec. 31. It is critical to ensuring Iraq's security until government forces are capable of taking charge of the fight against insurgents.
A draft has been completed and the government is preparing to submit it to Parliament for final approval - which US officials believe is by no means certain.
Although passage would require a majority of the 275-member Parliament, Maliki will submit the draft only if he is convinced it will receive two-thirds' support - which would allow him to fend off critics here and in neighboring countries such as Iran and Syria, according to Maliki's aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss strategy.
To reach two-thirds, the draft would need the 30 votes from the Supreme Council.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the pact over the telephone late Wednesday with Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a top member of the Supreme Council.
(In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was calling US congressional leaders in support of the agreement.)
But the Supreme Council has said little in public about the negotiations, a stand that a senior aide to party leader Hakim said was designed to distance the party from the agreement if it meets significant opposition.
"The Supreme Council did not want to be associated with the agreement," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "If it founders, then al-Maliki alone must deal with the consequences."
The first hint of opposition by the Supreme Council to the agreement emerged yesterday.
Senior lawmaker Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer said the party will seek "clarification" from Maliki when he meets with Parliament leaders over the weekend.
Another Supreme Council legislator, Diaa Eddin al-Fayadh, said the party planned to vote on the agreement at an unspecified date.
Even if the Supreme Council stands behind Maliki on the agreement, the growing split between the two Shi'ite parties could threaten the political stability that the US military believes is vital to maintaining fragile security gains made over the past year.
Politicians from both groups say they expect the dispute to endure through the provincial elections expected by Jan. 31 and a general election before the end of 2009.
The two parties have always been uneasy partners, forced into an alliance because they needed to cement the political gains won by the long-oppressed Shi'ites after Hussein's fall.
The Supreme Council was created in Iran in the early 1980s and has maintained close ties to Tehran.
What it lacks in popularity it makes up for with good organization and extensive funds.
Dawa, the older of the two, has traditionally attracted more secular and educated Shi'ites and, unlike its rival, keeps some distance from Iraq's powerful clerics and Iran's ruling clergy.
Relations between the parties began to sour after Maliki grew stronger and more assertive following political and military successes that coincided with a dramatic reduction in violence following last year's US troop buildup.