BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Followers of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are nearing a deal with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to form coalitions in Iraq’s provinces following last month’s election, officials said on Saturday.
Where the Sadrists and allies of the increasingly assertive prime minister together won a majority of seats on provincial councils the two groups may rule as a coalition, said Ameer Tahir al-Kinani, a senior member of a list of candidates backed by Sadr.
“We have an initial agreement to form coalitions in all provinces without exception,” said Kinani. “If we can’t form a local government on our own, we can bring in a third party.”
Hassan al-Sneid, a lawmaker from Maliki’s Dawa Party, said the agreement was just about wrapped up between the Sadrists and the Dawa-led coalition, which trounced other Shi’ite groups in what was Iraq’s most peaceful vote since the 2003 invasion.
The provincial alliances may be named “Public Service Front,” he said.
The January 31 election to pick councils governing 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces passed without a major militant attack and boosted hopes for an end to the sectarian slaughter and insurgency as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq before 2012.
Maliki emerged as a strong winner, campaigning on a platform that called for a unified, centralized state and setting himself up for a powerful run in parliamentary polls at the year’s end.
He also eschewed the religious overtones and secularism that traditionally characterized his Islamic Dawa Party and which colored the campaign of his main Shi’ite rivals, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI).
His success has alarmed ethnic Kurds, who were massacred by Saddam Hussein and have enjoyed autonomy since Saddam’s forces were first routed in 1991 after the Kuwait invasion. Kurds fear their semi-independence may be threatened by Maliki.
Maliki’s State of Law coalition performed particularly well in Basra, which includes Iraq’s most productive oil fields, and Baghdad, both cities where Maliki used U.S.-backed Iraqi troops last year to crush militias backing the firebrand cleric Sadr.
That would seem to make them strange bedfellows. But Kinani said both had the same aims for Iraq -- a strong central government and competent bureaucrats to run local governments.
The two parties also share Islamist roots. Sadr’s uncle, the cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, was an early Dawa leader.
An alliance between the two groups would give them majorities in the provinces of Basra, Baghdad, Maysan, Wasit and Dhi Qar. In addition, they together have nearly half the provincial council seats in Kerbala, Najaf and Qadisiya.
When it came to picking powerful provincial governors, Kinani said party politics would not be the decisive factor.
“It is not a condition that they should be picked from the winning lists. We will seek the better, most competent and most honest candidate to run the province,” he said.
Kinani did not rule out inclusion of third parties, including ISCI, so long as it dropped its campaign for autonomy in the oil-rich, Shi’ite south.
“We are open to all winning lists, even those that just got one seat,” Sneid said separately. “Our theory is that no one should have a monopoly of the administration of the provinces.”
Editing by Michael Christie
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