Two Shi’ite coalitions join forces in new Iraq government
Move is seen likely to alienate nation’s Sunni minority
BAGHDAD — An agreement signed by the two main Iranian-backed Shi’ite blocs seeking to govern Iraq gives the final decision on all their political disputes to top Shi’ite clerics, according to a copy obtained by the Associated Press yesterday.
If the alliance succeeds in forming the next government, the provision could increase the role of senior clergy in politics. The provision would probably further alienate Iraq’s Sunni minority, which had been hoping the March election would boost their say in the country.
The newly announced alliance between the Shi’ite blocs practically ensures they will form the core of any new government and squeeze out the top vote getter, Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya list, which received heavy Sunni support. But the terms of the alliance show the deep distrust between the two Shi’ite partners and seek to limit the powers of the prime minister.
A leading member of the prime minister’s coalition who signed the agreement on Tuesday confirmed that it gives a small group of clerics led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani the last word on any disputes between the two allied blocs.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
“The marjaiyah has the final say in solving all the disputes between the two sides, and its directives and guidance are binding,’’ the agreement said, referring to the religious Shi’ite leadership based in the holy city of Najaf.
The provision applies only to the alliance, not to any new government. But if the Shi’ite alliance dominates the new government, clerics would potentially have a direct say in policy.
In the past, Shi’ite politicians have often turned informally to Sistani for advice and to resolve disputes. The agreement would enshrine that role in writing.
Sistani’s office declined to comment on the agreement.
The Iranian-born cleric, who is in his 80s, is the most revered religious figure among Shi’ites in Iraq. He offers his counsel behind the scenes to senior politicians who privately seek his guidance and support. But he has shunned a public role and opposes a Shi’ite philosophy that gives direct rule to clerics, as in Iran.
Sistani has played a major role in keeping stability while ensuring the unity and domination of the Shi’ites. But his inability to stop the brutal Shi’ite-Sunni violence of 2006 and 2007 has shown the limitations of his authority.
The deal is between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition and the conservative Shi’ite Iraqi National Alliance, which comprises the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and followers of anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Neighboring Iran, a Shi’ite theocracy carries great influence with both groups and has long pushed for such an alliance.
Iraq’s Sunnis have been sidelined since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. The community threw its weight behind Iraqiya, which won 91 seats in the election, more than any other bloc but far short of the majority needed to govern.
Sunnis already were warning that excluding them from government could fuel new sectarian violence.
Abdul-Ilah Kazim, a Sunni lawmaker with the Iraqiya list, rejected the political influence of the Shi’ite clerics.
“There is a sectarian flavor to this one-sect agreement from start to finish, and certainly all the world and Iraqi people will get his message,’’ he said.
In an interview yesterday, before the details of the agreement were revealed, US ambassador Christopher Hill said, Sunnis have to be a part of the political process.
“You cannot run Iraq without having significant Sunni participation,’’ Hill said.
Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, pointed out that in the past Sistani has pushed for greater inclusiveness in the Iraqi government.
“I would not be surprised if Sistani puts pressure on the Shiite alliance to reach out to other groups,’’ she said.