Maliki hails creation of non-sectarian bloc

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Thursday unveiled a broad-based political alliance to fight January’s general election, hailing a “historic” moment for a country often torn apart by sectarianism.

The State of Law Coalition, comprised of 40 political parties and groupings, will include candidates from Iraq’s ethnic majority Shiite community as well as Sunni tribal leaders and candidates from other minority groupings.

The establishment of the new electoral list will put Maliki, a Shiite, against the ruling Shiite-dominated bloc, which the premier broke away from in August.

“The formation of this alliance marks a historical turning point in the process of rebuilding the modern Iraqi state … and represents all Iraqis,” he told a gathering of candidates and tribal leaders in central Baghdad.

“This coalition has personalities who are not aligned to a (single) community or ethnicity,” Maliki said.

With the polls just three months away, Maliki’s coalition includes Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, a key Sunni leader who turned against Al-Qaeda to play a major role in reversing the violent insurgency which engulfed Iraq in 2006 and 2007.

The premier is also backed by Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, a Shiite, several other ministers, as well as independents and Kurdish, Christian and Turkmen candidates.

The announcement in the capital’s Al-Rasheed hotel was attended by hundreds of tribal sheikhs, and Muslim and Christian leaders.

Maliki announced in August he was breaking ranks with his ruling coalition ahead of the election, instead aiming to establish a multi-confessional coalition including tribal Sunni leaders as well as Shiite candidates.

Iraq’s last parliamentary elections in 2005 were seen as strictly divided along sectarian lines, but Maliki hopes a cross-sectarian alliance can bridge a divide which has marred politics and security since the 2003 US-led invasion.

“This is a genuine move to lift sectarian barriers — there is commitment to the unity of Iraq, to regain the country’s sovereignty,” said Hashim al-Hasani, a Sunni and former parliament speaker.

“We think this list is able to cross the sectarian divide and become a really national list.”

Shiite parties clinched 128 seats in the 275-strong parliament at the 2005 election.

Neither Maliki nor his Dawa party stood in January’s provincial elections, which were seen as a de facto referendum on his leadership, with the premier instead campaigning for candidates under a State of Law Coalition banner.

His allies won a resounding victory, taking the majority of votes in Baghdad and eight of Iraq’s nine Shiite-dominated provinces.

But Maliki’s position as guardian of Iraq’s security has come under pressure in recent months after a spike in violence — including twin truck bombings against government ministries in Baghdad in August — that has killed hundreds and wounded many more.

A downward trend in unrest earlier this year appears to have been reversed since US troops pulled out of Iraq’s cities and towns at the end of June.

The number of violent deaths in Iraq hit a 13-month high in August, raising fresh concerns about stability after the government admitted that security has been worsening.

At least seven are killed in bombing of busy market

A bomb planted in a busy market in the Iraqi town of Mahmudiya, south of Baghdad, killed at least seven people and wounded 21 on Friday, police said.

The explosion shattered a relatively calm holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend and has been a favourite militant target in past years. It struck just as town residents were shopping for food to break their fast.

Police gave no further details. Sources at a local hospital confirmed the death toll.

Despite persistent violence, Iraqis have been venturing out in the evening this Ramadan and many say they feel safer than they have for years.

But the blast in Mahmudiya, 30 km (20 miles) south of Baghdad, was a reminder of the security woes Iraq faces six-and-half-years after the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Evening gatherings for Ramadan have been a magnet for bombers linked to al-Qaeda and other groups in the past, but Iraq has seen a fall in deaths from bombings this month.

Religiously mixed Mahmudiya was once in the heart of the so-called “Triangle of Death”, where radical Sunni and Shi’ite Islamist militants battled it out and settled sectarian scores in 2006 and 2007, killing hundreds of Iraqis. It has since been largely quiet.

But two roadside bombs there on Sept. 10 killed at least two people and wounded 10.

Iraqi Shi’ite power-broker buried in Najaf

Thousands of mourners have attended the funeral of Iraq’s leading Shi’ite power-broker. The Imam Ali mausoleum in Najaf was packed with followers of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the man credited with leading the Shi’ite re-emergence after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime.

Al-Hakim was born in Najaf. He was buried next to his brother Muhammad Baquer who was killed by al-Qaeda in 2003. Al-Hakim was one of Iraq’s most influential political figures, but his death highlights growing splits among Shi’ites: just days ago his party launched a new grouping for next January’s elections but there was no place for al-Hakim’s former ally, the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

What now? As Iraqi Shi’ite leader is laid to rest

The body of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim the leader of Iraq’s largest Shi’ite political grouping begins its journey from Iran to Iraq following his death yesterday in Tehran from lung cancer.

His passing raises questions about who will fill the considerable void at the heart of Iraq’s Shi’ite coalition as elections loom in January.

Hammed al-Turaifee said: “Everyone agrees that his death will alter the political environment. He was an influential figure in Iraqi politics, his death will have a negative effect on the whole process.”

Al-Hakim is described as the ultimate middleman forming alliances with both Shi’ites in Iran and the US in Iraq as well as heading the Supreme Iraqi Council, a union of diverse Shi’ite factions.

A lot depends on the role of al-Hakim’s son who looks set take on his father’s job.

It will be a severe test for Ammar al-Hakim to keep the council together as it contains some big players, particulary the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who heads the Mahdi army.

Al-Hakim’s death fuels political crisis in Iraq

The leader of one of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite Muslim political groups and most important religious dynasties has died, adding to political uncertainty in the war-torn country with an election looming next year.

Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim succumbed to cancer at the age of 59. The head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a major partner in the Shi’ite-led government, his demise leaves a vacuum that may prove hard to fill.

On the streets of Baghdad news of Al-Hakim’s death was a cause for concern.

“Actually, it will influence the political process, it will have a great effect. We want the politicians to bridge the gap and be united and work on unifying this dear country,” said one man.

“I do not know what to say, but it will undoubtedly affect the political situation,” said another.

Al-Hakim’s impeccable political and religious credentials made him a pivotal figure among the region’s power brokers. Only this week, the ISCI announced a new, mainly Shi’ite alliance including radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who holds sway over the “stood down” Medhi army.

Significantly, the alliance does not include Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an increasingly aloof and assertive leader now seen as a potential rival to the ISCI rather than a close ally.