BAGHDAD // A newly formed Shiite political front has become the most powerful force in Iraq's parliament, in a development that could heighten already simmering sectarian tensions. The coalition brings together the two major Shiite groups that had contested the March 7 elections independently from one another - the prime minister Nouri al Maliki's State of Law bloc and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which includes the Sadr movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).
Precise details of the partnership have not been released but according to the Associated Press news agency the deal gives wide reaching powers to Iraq's Shiite clerical establishment and would severely limit the decision-making abilities of the prime minister. Sunni groups and nationalists have reacted with dismay and anger, insisting that as the largest parliamentary bloc to contest the election, the Iraqiyya list led by Ayad Allawi and heavily supported by Sunnis, retains the right to nominate the prime minister and attempt to form a government.
Iraq's highest judicial authority has yet to issue clear guidance on whether parliamentary alliances formed after votes were cast should be called upon to create the next national administration. Such legal rulings may already have been rendered irrelevant in practice however, with the new coalition assuring the broad Shiite front will be the biggest voice in the 325-seat parliament, with a combined total of some 159 seats against Iraqiyya's 91.
The Kurdish bloc, with 43 seats, has already indicated it will join forces with the Shiites, recreating the same coalition that ruled Iraq since 2005. Usama al Najafi, a leading member of the Iraqiyya list, condemned the Shiite coalition as divisive. "The alliance between State of Law and the INA is sectarian," he said, a view shared by many Sunni Arabs. The Sunni boycott of the 2005 elections and their disenfranchisement fuelled a bloody insurgency and helped lead Iraq into a brutal sectarian civil war.
Mr Najafi insisted Iraqiyya retained the power to appoint a prime minister of its choosing. "The alliance does not undermine our right to nominate the candidate for the prime ministerial position, according to the constitution," he said in an interview. That assertion was flatly rejected by Ali al Dabagh, a key figure in the new Shiite front. "Iraqiyya has lost the opportunity to nominate anyone from its list to the position of president or to the prime minister's office," he said.
The prospect of the same government that ran the country before the election effectively reforming has prompted warnings that the insurgency - for some time on the wane as Sunnis engaged in the political process - may now be rekindled. "Sunnis are going to be furious about what is happening on the national political stage and the next four years are going to be no better than the last four years," said Ahmad al Dulaimy, 39, a lawyer and independent politician from Baghdad.
He was also critical of the two Shiite parties for announcing their alliance before final election results were confirmed. The results expected in two weeks or more. The new Shiite front has yet to give itself a name and has not nominated a candidate to serve as its overall leader, perhaps indicating lingering divisions within the grouping. The Sadrists in particular are at loggerheads with State of Law's leader, Mr al Maliki. He seems unlikely to retain his position at the head of the next government and may even be replaced by the former prime minister Ibrahim al Jaafari.
In Iraq there is now a palpable feeling that the clock has, in some sense, been turned back and that the country may have finally slipped into the kind of sectarianism it appeared to be on course to escape just one year ago. "As a Sunni I feel very angry about this alliance," said Mohammad al Khudiary, a construction engineer from Baghdad. "They will reject us from government once again and I believe this will bring a lot of problems to my country."