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Plan to isolate al-Sadr finds little support among Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—An American-led initiative to sideline militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr by bolstering support for his political rivals has gained little traction here and may even have strengthened al-Sadr's hand, according to interviews Friday with several Iraqi politicians and clerics involved in the talks.

The effort to assemble a political bloc of so-called moderates to counter al-Sadr's growing influence was one of the recommendations National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley made in a secret White House memo that was leaked last month. U.S. officials hope such a coalition would ease Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's dependence on support from al-Sadr, whose followers, U.S. officials say, are responsible for much of the violence now convulsing Baghdad.

But few Iraqi politicians have been willing to go along with the plan, which was riddled with problems from the onset, Iraqi officials said. U.S. backing for a new coalition has allowed al-Sadr to portray his opponents as American lackeys, they added.

"This idea was a non-starter," said Haider Abadi, a lawmaker and senior member of al-Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party. "The U.S. administration is under pressure. They want to win public opinion by showing some form of progress, without knowing the situation on the ground. . . . It caused more problems than it solved."

The proposal to form a moderate contingent has been under discussion for months, but took on new urgency with the release of the Hadley memo, in which he suggested that the United States help form "a new political base among moderate politicians from Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other communities."

Only five groups were to be included in the bloc: the Dawa Party, the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the two leading Kurdish factions, and the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is Iraq's largest Sunni party.

Leaders from three of the five parties—SCIRI's head, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim; al-Maliki, a member of the Dawa Party; and Tareq al-Hashemi, Iraq's vice president and a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party—have met with President Bush in recent weeks.

Since those meetings, however, even politicians who initially supported the effort have distanced themselves, mindful of crossing the powerful and popular Sadr or incurring the wrath of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite cleric, who has withheld comment on the proposal.

Sistani's main concern is keeping intact the Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, which controls by far the most seats in parliament and includes SCIRI, Dawa and al-Sadr's supporters. Hamad al-Khafaf, Sistani's spokesman, flatly denied reports that the ayatollah had given the green light for a new bloc.

"His Eminence hasn't yet heard from all the politicians about this," Khafaf said by telephone from his Beirut office.

Instead, the established Shiite parties are now attempting to persuade al-Sadr to end a boycott of the government by his 30 legislators and six Cabinet ministers. The boycott was declared to protest al-Maliki's meeting with Bush in Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 30.

The involvement of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party has not gotten off the ground because the government has failed to address Sunni concerns, said Omar Abdul Sattar, a Sunni legislator and political officer for the Iraqi Islamic Party. Those concerns include the release of Sunni prisoners, the incorporation of more Sunnis in the country's security forces and an end to executions of Sunnis by Shiite death squads.

"We entered the government based on agreements that were not implemented, and there has been continuous harm since," Abdul Sattar said. "We cannot venture out and be part of a new coalition unless we start seeing something implemented so that such an initiative could succeed."

Haitham Husseini, a spokesman and adviser of SCIRI, said the proposal ran into problems with the widespread portrayal of a new coalition as an antidote to al-Sadr.

Husseini wouldn't go so far as to say that the talks were dead, but he focused on efforts to bring al-Sadr into the fold, rather than isolate him, as the Bush administration had envisioned.

"All of these leaders who are in this group believe in the necessity of not excluding anybody," Husseini said.

Al-Sadr's supporters appear unintimidated by U.S. proposals for a new coalition. On Friday, a al-Sadr spokesman in Najaf said the cleric had declined to meet with a delegation of senior Shiite officials at his home there. Waleed al-Zamali also denied reports that al-Sadr had agreed to end his boycott of the government.

"The Sadr movement strongly denies that the members of the Sadrist bloc have returned to the government or parliament," al-Zamali said. "Their suspension will continue."

A key al-Sadr adviser told al Jazeera television that al-Sadr is contemplating calling for early elections. Many here believe that al-Sadr would win additional seats in the parliament if elections were held now.

"There were promises, insistences and pressures, and we are threatening early elections within a month," al-Sadr's foreign affairs chief Hassan al-Zarqani said. "If these promises are not met, then we will demand early elections so that people will know who represents them and who is against the people."

Other al-Sadr officials were dismissive of talks of a new coalition.

"It's a suggestion presented by the occupation to speak its will with an Iraqi tongue," said Nassar Rubaie, the head of al-Sadr's legislative bloc. "It's a new strategy from the occupiers because they don't want absolute winners or absolute losers."


(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Qassim Zein in Najaf, Iraq, and Shatha al Awsy, Laith Hammoudi and Mohammed al Dulaimy in Baghdad contributed.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.