BAGHDAD — Iraq's two main Shiite parties brought the country a step toward a new religious-based government by forming an alliance just four seats short of a parliamentary majority. The agreement between the two parties raised fears that Sunnis could once again be cut out of power, sparking a return to sectarian violence.
Underscoring the religious underpinnings of the new alliance, a senior member said the political bloc will be obliged to follow the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive Najaf-based cleric who is the country's most revered and influential religious figure.
"The guidance of the Supreme Marjaiya (senior Shiite religious scholars) is to be considered an obligation for the alliance," said Ali al-Adeeb, a leader of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party.
The alliance - announced without a name or a leader - foreshadows a showdown over who would be prime minister. Adeeb said a 14-member committee will vote on who should be the next prime minister.
The alliance is composed of Maliki's State of Law coalition and the Iraqi National Alliance, an electoral coalition that included the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq and followers of fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and there is no clear consensus between these groups yet on who should lead the country.
Adeeb said the new alliance intends to reach out to Iraqiya, a largely secular coalition heavily favored by Sunni voters that won the most seats in the national election. There was no official indication from Iraqiya, headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, that they would welcome such a move, but a powerful Sunni member indicated they could be open to bargaining.
"We are absolutely sure that no one can exclude the Iraqiya list because of our large number of voters...Our bloc will participate strongly in the coming government unless the government chooses to take a sectarian approach," said Atheel al-Nujaifi, the Sunni governor of Mosul whose party is a member of Iraqiya. Acknowledging that the new alliance cuts Iraqiya out of the running for prime minister, Nujaifi indicated that the political bloc would expect other high-level cabinet posts.
The March 7 elections - the second parliamentary elections since Saddam was toppled - have been seen as a way to redress a Sunni boycott, which contributed to sectarian divisions in the country that spiraled into civil war four years ago.
Nujaifi, a divisive political figure who came to power on an anti-Kurdish platform, said he fears the return of sectarian politics but that the Sunnis will not withdraw from the political process this time.
"Our constituencies have been through the experience of withdrawing from the political process...we were targets of terrorism or killing. We will not consider withdrawing unless the new alliance is targeting the control of one Iraqi faction over the other."
Although violence has declined dramatically, sectarian political killings have not stopped.
Iraqi police said a senior Sunni imam was shot by unknown gunmen Wednesday morning as he was leaving his home in Baghdad's Amariyah neighborhood. They said Abdul Jalil Fahdawi, a leader of a major alliance of Sunni clerics, was killed along with two of his bodyguards and a relative.
A statement issued by the political wing of several insurgent groups blamed the Iraqi government for the assassinations.
Some Iraqi political analysts are worried about the alliance of the two religious Shiite parties.
"This merger is a failure of the Iraqi people to overcome sectarianism," said Haider al-Musawi, head of an independent research center called the Ali al-Wardi Center for Human Development.
The announcement of the alliance was issued just hours after a strong statement from Iraq's presidency council warning that political maneuvering and delays were undermining the country's fledgling democracy.
Although Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law is the strongest partner in the new political bloc, he faces strong internal opposition to retain the post of prime minister. Followers of Sadr, a powerful element of the new coalition, withdrew from the previous government headed by Maliki. Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, favored by the Sadrists, is widely seen as too sectarian to be an acceptable candidate. The divisions could lead to the emergence of a lesser-known compromise candidate.
The State of Law's 89 seats combined with the INA's 70 seats is just four seats short of that needed for a parliamentary majority in the 325-seat parliament.
Iraqi voters divided their support in the March 7 elections among four main political blocs - the Shiite coalitions, a Kurdish grouping and Iraqiya. Amid charges of electoral fraud, court challenges and moves to ban winning candidates, the parties have been scrambling to form alliances for a coalition government.
"The announcement of the merger is not the problem," said Musawi. "If the biggest Shiite bloc made an alliance with the Kurds, and it is most likely to happen, will this marginalize the first winner - the Iraqiya bloc?" He said cutting out the Sunnis would have "catastrophic" consequences.
(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent)