BAGHDAD (AP) – The leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite party sought Monday to shore up political support before January’s elections, urging his rivals to join him and resist what he called threats to their unity.
The push by Ammar al-Hakim, who took over the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council after the death of his influential father last month, is trying to repair a split between the main Shiite parties that came to dominate Iraq’s government after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003.
His appeal Monday during a sermon for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr was aimed at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said he would withdraw his Shiite Dawa party from its alliance with SIIC and run with his own bloc in the Jan. 16 parliamentary elections.
“Uniting our position is the most urgent need, and we will still work to accomplish this unity,” al-Hakim told worshippers at an outdoor prayer service in Baghdad. “It is the right of our people to expect that.”
The death of al-Hakim’s father from lung cancer came at an especially critical moment for the Shiite political forces whose rise to power has often irked the country’s Sunni Muslim population. Although a minority in Iraq, Sunnis enjoyed the trappings of power under decades of Saddam’s Sunni-led regime.
Some have questioned whether the relatively inexperienced 38-year-old al-Hakim can bridge the division among the Shiites.
Just two days before his father’s death, the Supreme Council announced the formation of a new political bloc called the Iraqi National Alliance to contest the parliamentary elections. It also includes followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Maliki, whose part is already allied with SIIC, however, refused to take his party into the new alliance because of differences over the allocation of power and a desire to reach out to more prominent Sunnis and Kurds.
“We are working today to widen our Iraqi National Alliance to include the most political powers we can who are ready to work under this tent,” al-Hakim said “There are efforts being made by some inside Iraq and outside aimed at fragmenting our unity,” he said, without elaborating.
In another sign of outreach to the prime minister, al-Hakim backed the idea an international tribunal to try those responsible for bombings and other attacks in Iraq.
The prime minister called for such a tribunal after Aug. 19 bombings of government ministries that he has blamed on Saddam loyalists living in Syria.
In his second public speech since taking over the party leadership, al-Hakim also reached out to voters directly, saying he would provide Iraqis with more reliable electricity and water services if his alliance leads the next government.
Electricity and water cuts remain daily occurrences in many parts of the country and are one of the biggest complaints of Iraqis along with security concerns. “Today, in the country of the two rivers, drinkable water … has become only a dream for some Iraqis,” al-Hakim said. Iraq is also known as the land between two rivers, a reference to the Euphrates and the Tigris.
Al-Hakim’s Supreme Council is also trying to recover from an embarrassing defeat in Jan. 31 provincial elections in the oil-rich south due to voter backlash against religious parties.
Al-Maliki’s party, however, surged ahead there because of his popularity from security gains.