December 9, 2004
POLITICS

Shiite Groups Agree to Unite for the Election, and Sunnis Register for It

By ROBERT F. WORTH

New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 8 - Iraq's leading Shiite political groups agreed Wednesday to unite under a single banner, a move that could help them win a dominant share of votes in the coming national elections.

The agreement came as several Sunni parties, including one that led a broad movement to delay the elections for six months, registered to field candidates.

Together, the two decisions appeared to strengthen somewhat the chances of a January vote, despite the continuing violence here and calls by dozens of Sunni parties to postpone the elections.

In another development, officials at Iraq's Interior Ministry said they supported a proposal made by the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to spread the elections over a two- to three-week period in January, in an effort to ease security concerns. Dr. Allawi is in Europe, and details of the proposal will be ironed out on his return, the officials said.

A grand Shiite alliance had seemed to be in doubt as recently as Tuesday, when a renegade group declared it would form its own coalition. But a representative of Iraq's senior religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, pressed the groups to put aside their differences, Shiite party officials said Wednesday. The ayatollah has expressed concern in recent months that divisions among Shiite parties could cost them the loyalty of more secular Shiite voters in the elections.

Shiite Arabs, representing 60 percent of Iraq's population, have long been dominated by the Sunni minority, and they see the elections as a chance to turn their majority status into political power for the first time.

The new coalition, called the United Iraqi Alliance, brings together many of Iraq's best-known political figures, including the renegade cleric Moktada al-Sadr and Ahmad Chalabi, the former exile once championed by the Bush administration. It is composed mostly of Shiite parties, but also includes Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmens and tribal leaders from across Iraq, in what the organizers hope will be seen as a diverse ticket with broad national appeal.

News of the agreement came as fighting continued in at least two cities. In Mosul, far to the north, one commando with the Iraqi Interior Ministry was killed and six were wounded in a gun battle that broke out when insurgents attacked a convoy, officials said.

Also in Mosul, an American soldier was wounded when his patrol came under mortar fire on Wednesday, officials said. A body was also found in the city, officials said. More than 100 bodies have been discovered there in recent weeks, most of them victims of a campaign by insurgents to terrorize and intimidate the police, national guardsmen and anyone believed to be working with American forces.

In Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, insurgents looted and destroyed a police station on Wednesday in an attack that left four people dead, The Associated Press reported.

In a second attack in Samarra, insurgents in a car fired on a group of Iraqi National Guard officers who were trying to pull them over, wounding four, military officials said. Militants also attacked the home of the city's police chief, but no one was killed, officials said.

In recent weeks, some Iraqi leaders have said the continuing violence makes the goal of January elections unattainable, especially in the Sunni-dominated areas north and west of Baghdad. Last month, dozens of political figures met to call for a postponement at the home of Adnan Pachachi, a well-known figure who has supported the American presence.

But Mr. Pachachi's party, the Independent Democratic Gathering, has now registered to run candidates in the elections, along with the Islamic Party and the National Democratic Party.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Pachachi said he had not yet made up his mind whether to compete in the elections or not.

In the election, voters will select a single slate of candidates as their choice for the 275-member national assembly, which will then choose a prime minister from its ranks and ultimately write a new constitution. Each slate will be accorded a number of seats in the assembly roughly proportional to the number of votes it receives. With its strong backing from Ayatollah Sistani, the United Iraqi Alliance could win enough seats to dominate the assembly.

But behind the show of unity, serious tensions persist within the Shiite alliance, including the issue of foreign influence. Two of the alliance's best-known political parties, the Dawa Islamic Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (better known as Sciri), have strong links to Iran. , and their leaders lived abroad for many years until the fall of Saddam Hussein. That has bred resentment among other Shiite groups whose members suffered under Mr. Hussein's reign.

The Iranian issue was highlighted on Tuesday, when Iraq's president, Ghazi al-Yawar, joined King Abdullah of Jordan in warning that Iran was trying to influence the Iraqi elections. In an interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Yawar said the Iranian government was providing money and training to candidates who are sympathetic to Tehran, and King Abdullah warned that many Iranians were crossing the border to vote in the Iraqi elections.

American officials have expressed grave concern about Iranian influence in the past. But on Wednesday, one official discounted somewhat the warnings from Mr. Yawar and King Abdullah - both Sunnis - noting that Iran was a convenient scapegoat for Iraqi Sunnis who have failed to organize themselves politically.

The official also said that despite longstanding connections with Iran, there is deep distrust between the two countries, which fought a eight-year war in the 1980's. And though Iraq's Shiites share the faith of the heavy majority in Iran, their religious leaders tend to frown on Iranian-style theocracy, preferring to keep religion and politics separate.

John F. Burns and Abdul Razzaq al-Saeidy contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. from Mosul.