BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – An alliance of major Shiite religious parties, which swept Iraq”s historic election in January, has agreed to remain together to contest next month”s parliamentary ballot, an official said Friday.
Meanwhile, roadside bombs killed two American soldiers in Baghdad and in Ramadi, west of the capital, on Thursday, raising the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 to 2,007, according to an AP count.
The decision by the United Iraqi Alliance to stay unified could ensure that its religious parties, which all have strong Iranian ties, remain a prominent force in Iraq”s next parliament.
The alliance”s move also appeared to indicate that the national election on Dec. 15 will once again be contested along ethnic and sectarian lines: the main Shiite coalition, secular alliances of Shiites and Sunnis, and separate Sunni Arab and Kurdish slates.
But behind-the-scene talks by the parties were still under way ahead of Friday night”s deadline for them to submit their final list of coalition candidates to the Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq, or IECI.
The United Iraqi Alliance includes Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari”s Dawa Party, Shiite cleric Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim”s Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Sadrist movement of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Fadhila party, a Shiite group whose spiritual leader is al-Sadr”s late father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr.
"The final shape of the United Iraqi Alliance list is complete, and it is going to be submitted today to the IECI. It contains its four major parties," Sheik Khalid AL-Atiya, a senior official of the Dawa Party, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday.
The alliance currently controls 146 of the 275 seats in Iraq”s National Assembly. But the coalition is not expected to do as well as it did in the January election.
Most of its success then was credited to the support of Iraq”s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But associates of the Iranian-born al-Sistani have said that the 76-year-old cleric does not intend to publicly support the United Iraqi Alliance, as he did in January, because of his disappointment with the performance with al-Jaafari”s government. The Jan. 30 election, which chose Iraq”s current parliament, was boycotted by most Sunni Arabs, embittered over the loss of the domination they had enjoyed under the rule of Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni. But many Sunni Arabs voted in the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum, and many also plan to take part in the Dec. 15 election in an effort to win more seats in parliament.
On Wednesday, leaders of the three Sunni groups _ the General Conference for the People of Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Iraqi National Dialogue _ announced they would field a joint slate of candidates and work together in the new parliament to promote Sunni interests.
Its agenda is expected to include a call for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Iraq _ if progress can be made in building national institutions.
Iraq”s two largest Kurdish parties, President Jalal Talabani”s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani, also have announced that their alliance will remain in place for the December vote.
Meanwhile, Shiite politicians were apparently continuing last-minute talks in an effort to persuade Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a former Pentagon insider, to join the United Iraqi Alliance ticket. Chalabi ran under the Alliance standard in January but is apparently holding out for a promise of a greater role if the Shiites control the next government.
"I think that Dr. Chalabi will be part of the United Iraqi Alliance," said Shiite politician Abbas al-Bayati. He is keen to be within the Alliance and the Alliance is keen to include him."
A Chalabi aide, Haidar al-Moussawi, confirmed that talks were under way with the Alliance but said no agreement had been reached. Another Chalabi aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for his boss, said Chalabi”s followers wanted the same number of places on the ticket as bigger Shiite parties.
In addition, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is expected to announce his ticket this weekend. Allawi, a secular Shiite, is trying to put together a ticket of secular-minded candidates from all ethnic and religious communities in a bid to appeal to voters tired of sectarian politics.
In fighting in Iraq on Thursday, Sunni Arab militants killed 14 Shiite militiamen and a policeman Thursday in a clash southeast of Baghdad, another sign of rising tensions among Iraq”s rival ethnic and religious communities.
The U.S. military reported three more American soldiers died in combat. The Shiite-Sunni fighting occurred after police and Shiite
militiamen loyal to al-Sadr raided a house in Nahrawan, 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of the capital, to free a militiaman taken hostage by Sunni militants, according to Amer al-Husseini, an aide to al-Sadr.
After freeing the hostage and capturing two militants, the Shiite militiamen were ambushed by the Sunnis on their way out of the religiously mixed town, al-Husseini said. Police Lt. Thair Mahmoud said 14 others, 12 militiamen and two policemen, were wounded.
The incident underscores tensions among hard-line elements in Iraq”s rival religious and ethnic communities at a time when the United States is struggling to promote a political process seen as key to calming the insurgency so that U.S. and other foreign troops can go home.
Both Shiites and Sunnis have accused one another of kidnappings and assassinations, especially in religiously mixed Baghdad neighborhoods and farming communities south and east of the capital. Majority Shiites and minority Kurds generally support the Shiite-dominated government,while Sunni Arabs dominate the ranks of the insurgents.
Sectarian violence has complicated efforts by the United States and its coalition partners to promote a political process, which received a boost this week with the announcement that voters had approved the new constitution in the Oct. 15 referendum.