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Major Parties in Talks to Break Shiite Cleric Al-Sadr...s Influence

By Edward Wong


Following discussions with the Bush administration, several of Iraq’s major political parties are in talks to form a coalition whose aim is to break the powerful influence of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr within the government, senior Iraqi officials say.

The talks are taking place among the two main Kurdish groups, the most influential Sunni Arab party, and an Iranian-backed Shiite party that has long sought to lead the government.

They have invited Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki to join them. But al-Maliki, a conservative Shiite who has close ties to al-Sadr, has held back for fear that the parties might be seeking to oust him, a Shiite legislator close to al-Maliki said.

Officials involved in the talks say their aim is not to undermine al-Maliki, but to isolate al-Sadr as well as firebrand Sunni Arab politicians inside the government. Al-Sadr controls a militia with an estimated 60,000 fighters that has rebelled twice against the American military and is accused of widening the sectarian war with reprisal killings of Sunni Arabs.

The Americans, frustrated with al-Maliki’s political dependence on al-Sadr, appear to be working hard to help build the new coalition. President Bush met last week in the White House with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Iranian-backed Shiite party, and is meeting this week with Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Sunni Arab party.

In late November, Bush and his top aides met with leaders from Sunni countries in the Middle East to urge them to press moderate Sunni Arab Iraqis to support al-Maliki.

The White House visits by al-Hakim and al-Hashemi are directly related to their effort to form a new alliance, a senior Iraqi official said.

Last month, Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, wrote in a classified memo that the Americans should press Sunni Arab and Shiite leaders, especially al-Hakim, to support al-Maliki if he sought to build “an alternative political base.”

The memo noted that Americans could provide “monetary support to moderate groups.”

Iraqi officials involved in the talks said they had conceived of the coalition themselves after growing frustrated with militant politicians.