By Suadad al-Salhy and Muhanad Mohammed
Allies of Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday they have formed a new alliance to fight January's general election, but the increasingly influential Iraqi leader has not joined the bloc.
The new alliance will be headed by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), one of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite groups, and will also include followers of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and other smaller groups and influential individuals.
It has been named the Iraqi National Alliance (INA).
"I wish that our brothers in (Maliki's) Dawa party would be among us today and God willing, efforts will continue to include everyone, with Dawa at the top of the list," Iraqi vice president and ISCI member Adel Abdul-Mehdi told reporters.
Shortly afterwards, a Dawa official said differences over the "mechanism of participation," likely meaning allocation of power within the coalition, and over the inclusion of more minorities had precluded Dawa's inclusion in the new group.
The public show of regret at the absence of Maliki and Dawa was a rare open glimpse at divisions between Shi'ite politicians who prefer to debate such issues behind the scenes.
Maliki's Dawa party and his allies performed well in provincial elections earlier this year, mainly at ISCI's expense. Splits within the once monolithic Shi'ite bloc could spell more strife in a country already wracked by violence.
Many blame a spate of huge bombings in the last few months on intra-sectarian strife.
DAWA WANTS BROADER ALLIANCE
But the divisions among Iraq's majority Shi'ites could also mark a shift away from the sectarian alliances that have dominated Iraqi politics since 2003, as Shi'ite blocs scrabble for partners among minority Kurds and Sunnis.
"There are no differences on points of strategy, but the differences are the mechanism of participation ... and opening the Iraqi National Alliance to wider political powers," senior Dawa member Hassan al-Sunaid told a news conference.
Those close to Maliki accuse ISCI leaders of keeping too much power to themselves within the new alliance.
Maliki's allies have expressed objections to the group's mostly Shi'ite character as the prime minister, once seen as highly sectarian, tries to rebrand himself as a nationalist.
His shift is aimed at trying to co-opt Iraq's Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds, whose feuds with Iraq's Shi'ite majority threaten to unravel the country's fragile security gains.
Few notable members of Iraq's Sunni or Kurdish minorities were visible at a news conference to announce the INA.
Speakers at the news conference to announce the new coalition focused on Iraqi unity, nationalism and a refutation of sectarianism, borrowing many of the buzzwords from Maliki's campaign in provincial polls earlier this year.
They also offered prayers for ISCI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is gravely ill in Iran. There could be a shake up within ISCI if he dies.
ISCI has close links to Iran, where it was founded in exile from Saddam Hussein's rule in the 1980s. Iranian influence in Iraq could increase should ISCI continue to lead the INA and if it emerges as Iraq's main Shi'ite bloc.
Iraq's current ruling Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, swept to power in 2005, but has since disintegrated.