BAGHDAD Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on Thursday unveiled his alliance for parliamentary elections in January, billing the ticket as a national, nonsectarian force to challenge a rival Shiite Muslim slate that has broader support among the country's religious authorities.
The announcement, made from a heavily guarded Baghdad hotel and broadcast live on television, ended weeks of speculation over whether Maliki's State of Law bloc would join the Iraqi National Alliance, a more Islamist faction that includes the largest Shiite party and supporters of rebel cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
Maliki, whose Dawa Party historically was a conservative Shiite Islamist opposition group during Saddam Hussein's regime, appears to be seizing on voters' disenchantment with the religious parties and positioning himself as the candidate who can reach across sectarian lines to stop violence and provide better basic services.
The Obama administration's hopes for speeding a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq depend heavily on whether the elections produce a government that most Iraqis consider legitimate, and not one that deepens the country's religious and ethnic divides or drives it closer to Iran.
Maliki's speech Thursday stressed the rule of law and a strong central government that would handle foreign policy, sovereignty and security, and control of natural resources.
Iraqis who are more familiar with Maliki the longtime Islamist are wary of his reincarnation as a populist.
"Maliki has changed," said Haider al Musawi, a Shiite political analyst in Baghdad. "The change is a result of the failure of the Islamist parties, and (he's) bending to the people's increasing demands for the return of secular rule."
Maliki's bloc could still join the larger Shiite slate, but political observers say it's unlikely unless he eases his reported demands for the lion's share of seats in the post-election parliament.
Both the leading tickets are heavily Shiite, with a sprinkling of Christian, Sunni Muslim Kurdish and Sunni Arab candidates. National reconciliation efforts haven't taken off, and another ethnic and sectarian showdown looms. So far, the major Kurdish parties haven't announced an electoral slate, and the most powerful Sunni factions disdain linking up with Shiite politicians whom they consider Iranian proxies.
Still, the ticket Maliki revealed Thursday did include some Sunni tribal leaders who joined U.S. and Iraqi forces in the fight against violent extremists. Among other candidates in the Maliki alliance are Oil Minister Hussain al Shahristani, lawmaker and women's rights activist Safia al Suhail and the prime minister's close advisers from his Dawa Party.
"The alliance includes a group of the best of your brothers and sisters from all elements, shades, political and intellectual inclinations of our society," Maliki said in his televised speech. "It includes leaders of our honored tribes, expressing our belief in the unity of Iraq, its diverse culture and ancient historical heritage, all of which enhance its national unity."
Iraq has a thorny path ahead before the vote Jan. 16. Parliament still hasn't approved new election laws, and there's no consensus on how to handle the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, where Arabs and Kurds are locked in a power struggle.
(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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