Iraq deal gives clerics final say

Baghdad, Iraq - An agreement signed by Iraq's two main Shiite blocs seeking to govern the country gives the final decision on all their political disputes to top Shiite clerics, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday.

If the alliance succeeds in forming the next government, the provision could increase the role of senior clergy in politics. The provision would likely further alienate Iraq's Sunni minority, which already feels excluded by Shiite dominance and had been hoping that March's election would boost their say in power.

The newly announced alliance between the Shiite blocs practically ensures they will form the core of any new government and squeeze out the top vote getter, the secular Iraqiya list, which was largely backed by Sunnis. But the terms of the alliance show the deep distrust between the two Shiite partners and seek to limit the powers of the prime minister.

A leading member of the prime minister's coalition who signed the agreement on Tuesday confirmed it gives a small group of clerics led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani the last word on any disputes between the two allied blocs. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

"The marjaiyah has the final say in solving all the disputes between the two sides and its directives and guidance are binding," the agreement said, referring to the religious Shiite leadership based in the holy city of Najaf.

Shiite politician Karim al-Yaqoubi, who attend the signing, also confirmed the contents of the agreement.

The deal is between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition and the conservative Shiite Iraqi National Alliance. Neighboring Iran, a Shiite theocracy where clerics have the final word on all matters of state, carries great influence with both groups Shiite blocs and has long pushed for such an alliance.

Iraq's Sunnis have been sidelined by Shiite-led governments since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. The community threw its weight behind former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya, which won 91 seats in the election - more than any other bloc. Sunnis are already warning that excluding them from government could fuel new sectarian violence.

In an interview Wednesday, before news of the details of the agreement became known, U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill said, "Sunnis have to be a part of the political process."

"They're a major community here. You cannot run Iraq without having significant Sunni participation," he told The AP.

In the past, Shiite politicians have often turned informally to al-Sistani for advice and to resolve disputes, but enshrining such a role in writing would dramatically strengthen the clerics' influence. Notably, it requires politicians to turn to the clerics and to stick to their decision.

One dispute that could potentially have to go to al-Sistani is the question of who would be prime minister in a government led by the new Shiite coalition. One party in the grouping, the powerful Sadrist movement, has strongly opposed keeping incumbent al-Maliki in the post.

Al-Sistani is the most revered religious figure among Shiites in Iraq - and many abroad - and while he usually worked behind the scenes, he played a major role in ensuring the unity and domination of the Shiites amid the turmoil following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. He has shown a thinly veiled preference for Shiite religious parties like the Supreme Council, al-Maliki's Dawa Party and, more recently, supporters of fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

But he has also shunned a public role and he opposes the Shiite philosophy of velayat-e faqih that governs Iran, giving direct rule to clerics.

Most of the provisions in the agreement between the Shiite blocs appear designed to limit the power of the prime minister. The provisions also reflect the deep distrust with which various factions in the alliance regard each other, underlining the possibly tenuous nature of their agreement.

Those familiar with the meetings said many of these conditions came from the Sadrist trend, which was deeply unhappy with al-Maliki, who ordered a crackdown on the Sadrists' militia in 2008.

The provisions require the prime minister to consult on all decisions with members of the alliance and prohibit him from trying to form his own electoral list. Policy issues are also to be determined by committes made up of the two Shiite blocs, further limiting the premier's role.

By putting in writing the role of the marjaiyah, the agreement also sets up a higher authority to the prime minister.

Iraqi political factions have been squabbling for weeks after the results of the March 7 close fought elections came out showing no bloc with an outright majority in the 325-seat parliament.

The latest developments, including an explicit role for the clerics, are likely to further alienate the once-dominant Sunnis who feel discriminated against by the Shiite-led government.

By sheer numbers, the new Shiite alliance may not need support from the Sunnis to form a governement. It is only four seats shy of a majority in parliament and one of the points in the agreement signed Tuesday night said the pan-Shiite alliance intends to form an alliance with the powerful Kurdish coalition, which has 43 seats. The Kurds have so far not indicated whether they will join the Shiite alliance.

In the past, however, Sunni disenfranchisement fueled a powerful insurgency that brought the country to the brink of a civil war.

A Sunni politician warned Wednesday that a new alliance of conservative Iraqi Shiite parties could revive the sectarian conflict that once wracked the country.

Hamid al-Mutlaq, who won a parliament seat on the Iraqiya list, expressed his hope that the new Shiite alliance will extend a hand to other parties and suggested sectarian conflict could flare again if it did not.

"The previous years of sectarian conflict took place between Iraqi families, among the people and even within the same neighborhood. We hope that this will never come to pass again," he warned.

Al-Mutlaq is from Anbar, the predominantly Sunni province in Iraq's west that was once home to the insurgency that fought the government and U.S. forces.

Al-Mutlaq is a cousin to Saleh al-Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni politician who was banned from running by a Shiite-led committee tasked with vetting candidates for ties to Saddam Hussein's regime.