March 23, 2010 / 3:25 PM / 9 years ago

Iraq's two main Shi'ite blocs discuss merger

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s two main Shi’ite political blocs, one led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and another whose leaders have close ties to Iran, are discussing a merger that could widen Iraq’s sectarian divide.

Officials register the serial numbers on locks used for parliamentary election ballot boxes at a counting centre in Baghdad March 18, 2010. REUTERS/Saad Shalash

A union between Maliki’s State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance, two of the top three vote-getters in Iraq’s March 7 parliamentary election, could sideline secularist former premier Iyad Allawi, whose cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition won strong support from minority Sunnis.

A merger could also push aside Maliki, who wants another term at the helm. One of INA’s major components, the Sadrist movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was the top vote-getter for INA and has poor relations with the premier.

The makeup of the next government is being watched closely by Washington, which plans to formally end combat operations in Iraq by September 1, and by global oil companies that have signed multibillion-dollar contracts to develop Iraq’s oilfields.

“There has been more than one meeting with INA to reach a deal to form an alliance or merge both coalitions,” Sami al-Askari, a prominent member of Maliki’s State of Law, told Reuters shortly after another leading member of the bloc issued a public statement saying the two needed to merge.

State of Law is running in a virtual dead heat with Allawi’s coalition. None of the leading blocs is expected to win enough seats to form a government alone and talks between parties and coalitions about potential alliances are in full swing.

The final preliminary vote count is scheduled to be released on Friday, nearly three weeks after the election.

Allawi’s Iraqiya drew strong support from Iraq’s minority Sunni population and analysts have said any attempt to exclude Iraqiya from the government could anger Sunnis marginalised after the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

“There is a necessity to merge the State of Law coalition and the Iraqi National Alliance,” Ali al-Dabbagh, who serves as Maliki’s government spokesman, said in a written statement.

FORMER PARTNERS

Maliki and INA’s main component, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), are former partners that split before the March 7 election.

ISCI, formed in exile in Shi’ite neighbor Iran, allied for the election with the Sadrist movement. There had been speculation that ISCI and the Sadrists, who performed strongly, would split after the election.

But INA sources suggested a merger of the two coalitions would include the Sadrists, who are known to have strong objections to Maliki remaining as prime minister.

Al-Askari said there was no talk of dropping Maliki as the candidate for premier of a merged bloc. “There is no other choice except Maliki,” he said.

But a senior INA member and candidate in the election, who confirmed the two blocs were in merger talks, said the union could not happen if State of Law insisted on Maliki as premier.

“It’s impossible to allow Maliki to be PM again,” the official said. “There is no way to change this and if he (Maliki) rejects this, OK, let him go to ally with Iraqiya.”

In reaction to the possibility of a State of Law-INA merger, Iraqiya candidate Jamal al-Bateekh said: “There are people who want to cling to power despite the voters’ interest.”

“Forming coalitions is a natural right for the winning blocs, but we want the country’s interest to prevail, not the sectarian coalitions that will return us to square one.”

Sixteen days after the election, about 95 percent of the vote count has been made public. Allawi’s Iraqiya leads Maliki’s State of Law by about 11,000 votes.

Maliki’s bloc is ahead in seven of 18 provinces and Allawi’s in five. Seats in parliament will be allocated on the basis of a bloc’s success in each province, not the national popular vote.

State of Law and Iraqiya each expect to hold more than 90 of the 325 parliamentary seats. Analysts say INA may win 65-70.

Formation of a new government is expected to take months.

Analysts have said attempts to sideline Allawi could be seen as an attempt to relegate Sunnis to the political wilderness and set back Iraq’s fragile security gains following years of sectarian warfare that killed tens of thousands of people.

The United States plans to halve the number of troops in Iraq by the end of August and withdraw completely before 2012.

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