Iraq's Shiites Unite To Try To Form New Government

Iraq's two big Shiite political groups say they have joined forces in a bid to form a new government. The move comes two months after the country's election. However, there are still obstacles to creating the coalition that would govern Iraq.

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And now let's try to pick up this next story in Iraq, where politicians are trying to run a country in the midst of war. There are signs that Iraq might be moving toward a new government. It's been a couple of months since a parliamentary election. No party got a majority, so politicians have to assemble a coalition - which is taking time.

Now the party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced an alliance with another large faction - both are Shiite Muslim. Between them, they would have nearly enough seats to hold a majority in parliament, but they dont quite have a deal yet. For example, they have not agreed on who the next prime minister should be.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Baghdad.

PETER KENYON: The announcement by Maliki's State of Law Party and the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes the anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, came amid growing impatience with a political process that was mired in post-election in-fighting.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: At a hastily called late-night news conference, representatives of the two blocs solemnly pledged to pool their resources and work together to form the next government. But they carefully avoided the bigger question of who will be in line for the prime minister's job.

Maliki has made it very clear he considers himself the next candidate, while the Sadr bloc has deep reservations about leaving Maliki in power. Officials said this Shiite alliance was only formed after a set of procedures was laid out governing how a prime minister would be chosen, a process that could take weeks.

Officials from other parties speculated that if Maliki insists on leading, it may be hard for the Sadr bloc to remain in the alliance.

But if this alliance holds, the biggest loser would appear to be former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqi slate actually won the most seats in the March 7 balloting but has made no evident progress in forming a majority coalition of its own. One Allawi supporter said last night's announcement was likely the result of Iranian pressure to make sure that Shiite parties keep the upper hand.

Hajim al-Hassani, a leading figure in Maliki's State of Law Party, said in an interview before the alliance was announced that it's one thing to create a mostly Shiite majority bloc in parliament known as the Council of Representatives. But actually forming the government will, in his view, require outreach to the Kurds, the Sunnis and others.

Mr. HAJIM AL-HASSANI (State of Law Party): Formation of government is different issue. After you build the new coalition, you become the largest bloc in the Council of Representatives. Then you open two other groups to be part of the national unity government. And for us, in the (unintelligible) for that means, you know, you open to (unintelligible), you open to other small groups. You cannot exclude the Sunnis from being part of the government.

KENYON: For the Americans, and for many Iraqis, progress towards some kind of stable government is becoming increasingly urgent. Calls to get the show on the road have come from U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill. The U.S. is also growing troubled by the activities of a Shiite panel known popularly as the DeBaathification Commission, which is moving to disqualify certain candidates, many of whom happen to be in Allawi's political bloc.

At a briefing for reporters Sunday, U.S. political counselor Gary Grappo criticized the commission's actions.

Mr. GARY GRAPPO (U.S. Political Counselor): We do remain concerned about the functions of this organization of questionable legitimacy employing something less than transparent means to challenge the results of a legitimate election. There's also a question of disenfranchisement of those who voted for these candidates.

KENYON: The emergence of this new Shiite alliance is a positive sign of movement, but it also raises concern about the prospect of renewed sectarian bloodshed. For one thing, it could mean the rise of a new leadership that includes the fiercely sectarian Shiite Ahmed Chalabi and a newly empowered Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls a Shiite militia that has been raising its profile recently.

The fear is that Iraq's Sunni minority, which threw its support behind Allawi, will give up on the political process, possibly returning to the violence that plagued Iraq in recent years. Officials say that makes outreach to the Sunnis now more important than ever.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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