Thursday, December 21, 2006

Shiite Rivalry Working Against Maliki

With the restraining influence of Ayatollah Ali Sistani upon Iraqi Shiites fading, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is becoming overshadowed by the two most prominent black turbaned clerics.

Who are at serious odds with each other.

The rivalry between (Moqtada al-Sadr) and (Abdul Aziz al-Hakim) has unfolded mostly on the political stage. The two leaders joined the alliance that produced the current government, but soon their visions diverged. This year, Sadr threw his support behind Maliki largely to stop Hakim's candidate, current vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi, from becoming prime minister.

Hakim and Sadr are also sharply divided over whether Iraq should split into autonomous regions. Hakim is pushing for a separate Shiite region in the south, but Sadr, who views himself as an Iraqi nationalist, wants to keep the country unified. ...

Hakim, meanwhile, has shown his pragmatism, understanding that he needs U.S. troops and support to balance the growing power of Sadr. Last month, he met with Bush, an action that many observers saw as the U.S. hedging its gamble on the weak Maliki government. Bush also met with Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party. Hashemi is perceived by Washington as a moderate, although many Iraqis would disagree.

"Maliki is very worried about this turnabout," said Wamid Nadhmi, a political analyst in Baghdad. "This is because of his affiliation with Moqtada Sadr and the promotion that Mr. Bush is giving to Mr. Hakim. Maliki is seeing his political end, that they are trying to form a new government with the approval of the Americans."

U.S. pressure on Maliki to isolate Sadr is growing. American officials have declared Shiite militias -- particularly the Mahdi Army -- the most significant threat to Iraq's stability. Maliki has not cracked down on the militia of his political benefactor. He and his Shiite Islamic Dawa Party are also resisting U.S. attempts to build a moderate coalition.

In many circles, Iraqis question whether Hakim and other so-called moderates can curb the growing power of Sadr.

"I have serious doubts about Mr. Hakim's influence among the Shiites, and I have serious doubts of Hashemi becoming the leader of Sunnis," Nadhmi said.


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