Shi’ite party head provides boost to Iraqi front-runner

Iranian-linked group decides to back Allawi

By Adam Schreck
Associated Press / April 3, 2010

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BAGHDAD — The secular front-runner in Iraq’s elections welcomed the support of a leading Iranian-linked Shi’ite party yesterday while a powerful anti-US cleric canvassed his followers in a poll that could set the stage for a turn against the incumbent prime minister.

The backing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council was the latest boost for Ayad Allawi, whose Iraqiya bloc has emerged as the front-runner to form a new government after parliamentary elections that left him just two seats ahead of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s mainly Shi’ite list.

Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council leader Ammar Al-Hakim announced his party’s support for Allawi hours before followers of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr voted in an unofficial referendum on which candidate their movement should support.

Yesterday’s vote has no legal authority but could give the Sadrist leadership an excuse not to support Maliki and openly back another candidate under the guise of following what the people want.

The Sadrists and Hakim’s party are united under a Shi’ite religious umbrella known as the Iraqi National Alliance.

It has emerged in a kingmaker position as the third-biggest winner in the March 7 vote, with a combined 70 seats in the 325-member parliament.

Both parties were long allied with Maliki but broke with the prime minister in recent years after he backed US-Iraqi forces in offensives that routed the Sadrists and sought to distance himself from their hard-line religious stance.

Hakim said his party, which has strong ties with Iran, said he was open to an alliance with Allawi’s Iraqiya list, a cross-sectarian grouping that drew on heavy Sunni support to eke out a two-seat lead over Maliki’s State of Law coalition.

That gave a pivotal role to the INA, particularly Sadr, whose supporters won at least 39 seats to become the largest bloc within the grouping.

“We will not participate in the next government without Allawi’s’’ Iraqiya Party slate, Hakim said in remarks broadcast late Thursday.

He also rejected allegations that Allawi’s list had ties to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Ba’ath Party.

The issue has stoked sectarian tensions during political maneuvering before and after the elections.

“I can assure you that the Iraqiya list is not a Ba’athist one,’’ he told hundreds of loyalists during a meeting in Baghdad.

Allawi’s party warmly welcomed Hakim’s support, which Iraqiya spokesman Abdul Rahman al-Bayder said “will help build an authentic government.’’

He added that Iraqiya is “ready for a coalition that serves the political process and democracy.’’

Sadr, who is based in Iran, has withheld his backing from both big winners in the March 7 election, saying he wants his supporters to make the choice for him.

The Shi’ite cleric’s endorsement would be a valuable prize for candidates scrambling to get enough parliamentary support to form a government.

His followers set up polling tents across Baghdad and other predominantly Shi’ite cities, drawing hundreds of people. Organizers expected to release results tomorrow after two days of voting.

“We need security and support from the government,’’ said Sabah Hassan, 63, who said he hopes his vote yesterday in Baghdad will help bring stability to Iraq after years of war.