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Iraq's al Maliki joins with Sunnis for election

The prime minister has put together a broad alliance for January's parliamentary voting that crosses sectarian lines.

BAGHDAD // The re-election strategy for Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, took shape on Thursday as he unveiled a broad alliance for January's parliamentary voting that includes prominent Sunni clans which joined the fight against insurgents. Mr al Maliki's Shiite-led government is facing a challenge from a powerful bloc led by Shiite religious factions, including the largest Shiite political group and the anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

Mr al Maliki rejected joining the coalition and put together a rival movement that emphasises secular policies and reconciliation with Sunnis after years of sectarian bloodshed. Mr al Maliki's allies had strong showings in provincial elections earlier this year. He now hopes that voter distaste for the Shiite religious factions remains strong enough to keep his pro-Western government in power. His coalition for the vote on January 16 brings in Sunni parties and clans from around the country, including some members of the Abu Risha tribe that led the Sunni uprising against al Qa'eda in Iraq in the western Anbar province in one of the important turning points of the war. Other notable Sunnis joining Mr al Maliki include members of the powerful al Dulaimi clan. He also has on board top aides and several key members of his government, including the oil minister, Hussain al Shahristani, and the government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh.

The bloc of 40 parties and movements, known as the State of Law list, is rounded out by some Kurdish and Christian groups from Iraq's north. A victory by Mr al Maliki's coalition could mean a more diverse Cabinet and a greater political voice from Sunnis, who enjoyed unchallenged control under Saddam Hussein but were swept aside by the majority Shiites after the US-led invasion in 2003. Many Shiites still carry deep resentment against Sunnis for years of repression under Saddam. Mr al Maliki, in a speech to announce his election bloc, said it was time for Iraqis to put aside ethnic and sectarian differences to "bear the responsibilities of the coming years, which need more efforts and sacrifices." Mr al Maliki's government has come under pressure to maintain security gains as US forces prepare for the end of combat missions next year.

He used the speech to take another perceived jab at Syria, which he has blamed for harbouring Saddam loyalists linked to attacks, including twin suicide truck bombs in August outside the foreign and finance ministries that killed nearly 100 people. "We will not allow any country to interfere in our domestic affairs, which we consider a red line that can't be crossed," he said. "We will reconsider our relations with any country that does not respect Iraq's sovereignty and interferes in its affairs."

The election will offer two distinct poles of Shiite power: Mr al Maliki's list and a bloc led by the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is Iraq's largest Shiite political force. The Supreme Council is now led by a new hand: Ammar al Hakim, who took over after his influential father died in August in Tehran and is struggling to keep the group from splintering. The Council has forged election bonds with Shiite leaders such as Mr al Sadr, who carries sway over members of his once-formidable Mahdi Army militia. But Mr al Maliki refused offers to join, banking his political future on the gambit that the era is ending for Shiite religious factions in Iraqi political affairs. Mr al Maliki said: "We have agreed to confront all kinds of terrorism, not to allow the return of militias, to confine arms to the state only and to keep military and police forces away from political influences."

* AP.