New York Times
December 20, 2006
By Kirk Semple and Edward Wong
BAGHDAD, Dec. 19 —Iraq’s most venerated Shiite cleric has tentatively approved an American-backed coalition of Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties that aims to isolate extremists, particularly the powerful Shiite militia leader Moktada al-Sadr, Iraqi and Western officials say.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein the cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has been the spiritual custodian of Shiite political dominance in Iraq, corralling the fractious Shiite parties into an alliance to rule the country.
But Ayatollah Sistani has grown increasingly distressed as the Shiite-led government has proved incapable of taming the violence and improving public services, Shiite officials say. He now appears to be backing away from his demand that the Shiite bloc play the dominant political role and that it hold together at all costs, Iraqi and Western officials say.
As the effective arbiter of a Shiite role in the planned coalition, the ayatollah is considered critical to the Iraqi and American effort.
American officials have been told by intermediaries that Ayatollah Sistani “has blessed the idea of forming a moderate front,” according to a senior American official. “We wouldn’t have gotten this far without his support.”
President Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, wrote in a classified memo last month that the Americans should “engage Sistani to reassure and seek his support for a new, nonsectarian political movement.” In recent weeks, President Bush has received Shiite and Sunni politicians at the White House to encourage them to move forward with the coalition, officials said.
Since the American invasion of Iraq, Ayatollah Sistani has refused to meet with anyone from the American government but receives messages through intermediaries.
In meetings with Shiite politicians at his home in Najaf about two weeks ago, the reclusive ayatollah laid out conditions that the new coalition would have to meet to win his full approval, according to Sheik Humam Hamoudi, a senior Shiite legislator.
A principal demand, Mr. Hamoudi said, was that any political realignment “preserve the unity” of the 130-member Shiite parliamentary bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance.
But officials say that stipulation can be interpreted broadly to mean that the Shiite bloc be preserved in name only, with its various parties forming their own coalitions with Sunni Arabs or with Kurds. The new coalition could lead to the effective fragmentation of the ruling Shiite bloc because it is unlikely that Mr. Sadr, the militia leader, will sign on, Iraqi officials say.
Such an open split would weaken Shiite control over the government and increase tensions between rival Shiite militias, which have periodically clashed.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and his Shiite party, Islamic Dawa, are hesitant about signing on to the coalition. Dawa members say they are concerned that rival Shiite parties are trying to oust Mr. Maliki. They also suspect the Sunni Arabs’ real goal is to erode Shiite power.
“I think it’s a leap into the unknown,” said Sami al-Askari, a Shiite legislator who advises Mr. Maliki. “The negative things are clear, but no one can explain exactly what the positive things are.”
Shiite officials acknowledged in interviews that the disintegration of the Shiite bloc was already under way. Ayatollah Sistani formed the alliance in late 2004 to ensure that religious Shiite parties would present a united front in national elections. But the bloc is split by internal rivalries that have intensified.
Mr. Sadr, who controls 30 seats in Parliament and 6 of 38 cabinet positions, ordered his loyalists to withdraw from the government last month to protest a meeting in Jordan between President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki, who is beholden to Mr. Sadr for political support. Mr. Sadr has also clashed politically and militarily with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Mr. Hamoudi’s political group.
Perhaps resigned to the frailties of Shiite politics, Ayatollah Sistani has not made any recent public statements urging Shiite unity, nor has he been able to halt the violence.
“He is very sad,” Mr. Hamoudi said. “He feels he should do something to save Iraq and keep the unity of Iraq and preserve the blood of the people.”
Mr. Sadr’s rise to power, mostly on the strength of his Mahdi Army militia, has presented something of a challenge to the authority of Ayatollah Sistani as Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric. In spite of Mr. Sistani’s preaching of tolerance toward Sunni Arabs, the Mahdi Army has been a driving force in the bloody cycle of retributive violence, which is killing more than 100 people a day in Iraq.
Ayatollah Sistani remains profoundly influential among Shiites, and the country’s top Shiite leaders still feel obligated to visit his home — tucked away in downtown Najaf’s narrow winding streets — to seek his guidance. Mr. Maliki is planning to send a delegation from his party to discuss the nascent coalition with the ayatollah, according to a Shiite politician close to Mr. Maliki.
The idea of a coalition bridging the major sects and ethnicities first arose in the spring during a weeks-long crisis surrounding the selection of a prime minister. As the discussions dragged on, the leader of the Supreme Council, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, approached Kurdish and Sunni Arab politicians about supporting a single candidate, according to Iraqi and Western officials.
But Ayatollah Sistani blocked the proposal in favor of preserving the Shiite bloc, the officials said. “The word from Najaf then was, ‘Thou shalt not do that,’ ” said an American official familiar with the discussions.
The idea of the coalition was revisited in recent weeks as a way to revive the political process and perhaps move the country beyond the vicious sectarian politics reflected in the relentless violence in the streets. “It’s a light of hope in a sky filled with clouds,” Mr. Hamoudi said.
The talks are taking place among the two main Kurdish groups, the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party and Mr. Hakim’s religious Shiite party, the Supreme Council, which has long sought to lead the government.
American officials have been frustrated with Mr. Maliki’s political dependence on Mr. Sadr, who supported his bid for prime minister. The Americans have tried to reassure Mr. Maliki that the range of participating parties gives him the necessary political support to break from Mr. Sadr.
Mr. Maliki has expressed strong interest in the coalition but wants initially to welcome all political parties into its fold rather than to limit membership, Iraqi and Western officials say. That would provide additional political cover for any break with Mr. Sadr.
The prime minister’s proposal, Mr. Hamoudi said, “is to start with a very wide door and gradually close it.”
Ayatollah Sistani’s growing disillusionment with politics is apparently evident to those who visit him.
A prominent Shiite legislator, Shatha al-Mousawi, said she and other Shiite lawmakers met with him recently in his home to try to resolve an issue within the Shiite bloc. The ayatollah wanted nothing to do with the matter, she said. “He said, ‘It’s up to you,’ ” she recalled.
Since winning 130 of the 275 seats in Parliament, the Shiite bloc has never coalesced as Ayatollah Sistani intended it to, and factional rivalries have deepened, particularly over the past several months. A law enabling provinces to form autonomous regions, approved in October, was supported by Mr. Hakim but bitterly opposed by Mr. Sadr and members of the Fadhila Party, a Shiite group close to Mr. Sadr.
The Shiite infighting has paralyzed the government. Since Mr. Sadr’s loyalists began boycotting the government last month, the Parliament has been unable to form a quorum, preventing the passage of laws.
The new coalition is aimed at circumventing that kind of conflict, its leaders say, which is probably why Ayatollah Sistani is willing to lend his support. Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi and John F. Burns contributed reporting.