Iraq's Shiite Muslim Groups Unveil New Alliance

A dramatic announcement is signaling a new and uncharted era for Iraq's election process. The Shiite Muslim coalition that has ruled Iraq since 2005 is breaking apart. A new political alliance, with a new name, is stepping forward. The coalition of parties includes secularists, women and some Sunni Muslim politicians.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's go next to Iraq, where the man in charge of the government faces a challenge. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won power at the head of the Shiite Muslims who form a majority of Iraq. Now, many Shiites have formed their own alliance, which will not necessarily include him. NPR's Deborah Amos reports on a swirling debate that could affect Iraq's future.

DEBORAH AMOS: In a sweltering hotel ballroom, the leaders of Iraq's major Shiite Muslim parties unveiled the Iraqi National Alliance, a collation of parties that also included secularists, women, some Sunni Muslim politicians and a new theme for the country - nationalism - rather than Iraq's divisive sectarian splits.

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AMOS: The meeting opened both with a prayer and Iraq's national anthem, which was an appeal to unity and a wider group of voters, says Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's current vice president.

Vice Pres. ADEL ABDUL MAHDI (Iraq): Most of the main forces are Shiites, but we have very strong Sunnis groups. We'll be opened later on to Kurds and to others.

AMOS: Mahdi and others portrayed the new coalition as nonsectarian, but major Shiite parties are still dominant, including the Sadrists, an anti-American group close to Iran, and Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, which has managed close ties to Washington and Tehran.

But Chalabi spoke to the failures after the last election when a united Shiite bloc won at the polls, but failed at governing, and especially at delivering services.

Mr. AHMED CHALABI (Head, Iraqi National Congress): Iraqis must be ready to assume the responsibility for their country. This is patriotism, competence, and integrity.

AMOS: The new coalition has attracted small Sunni parties including a Sunni group called the Awakening from Anbar Province. But the biggest applause came when Sunni cleric Khalid al-Mullah denounced al-Qaida and Sunni militant violence. He said the religious justification these groups use for murder is wrong. (Soundbite of applause)

AMOS: A powerful statement in a week in which Sunni militants set off bombs in the heart of the capital. Iraqis took unusual interest in the new alliance. The opening meeting was broadcast live throughout the country. For them, it was a reflection of the unpredictability of politics, the fracturing of old alliances as the country heads towards a defining national vote.

There are big challenges ahead. As security unravels, there's been a rise in violence. There's the timetable for the U.S. withdrawal and the pull of influences between Washington and Tehran. Domestically, the country is in a nationalist mood, says Kazem Daoud(ph), a Shiite, independent politically and a supporter of nonsectarian politics.

Mr. KAZEM DAOUD: You cannot say there's no Shiite in Iraq or Muslim in Iraq. It doesn't work. But if we say, yes, you are a Shiite and you are a Sunni, but forget about this right now and take a political agenda. This is the real starting point.

AMOS: One remaining question is the political future for Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. After weeks of negotiations, he declined to join the new coalition for now.

He could join later, but is unlikely to get the top spot on the ticket. Or he can put his popularity to the test, form an opposing coalition, reaching out to more powerful Sunni political leaders and run against the very Shiite parties that brought him to power.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Baghdad.

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MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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