Allawi’s bloc urges Kurds, Hakim’s alliance to participate in next Iraq government

Attempts to reconcile political leaders’ views falter

U.S. administration lays new strategy for war on terror

Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric assured leaders of the Sunni-backed coalition that narrowly won the March election that no group will be excluded from the new government, representatives of the Iraqiya list said Sunday.

The 83-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is revered by Iraq's majority sect and carries great weight with the country's Shiite politicians, who have dominated the Iraqi government since the U.S. invasion in 2003 that overthrew Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.

"Al-Sistani stressed national unity and ... the importance of forming the government as soon as possible," said Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who heads the Iraqiya coalition.

Speaking to reporters in Najaf after the meeting, Allawi said the cleric emphasized the next government should serve the people without "excluding and marginalizing any group," in an apparent reference to the minority Sunnis, who have felt politically sidelined since 2003.

Al-Sistani also told Iraqiya leaders that he has "no veto" on which politicians serve, said a senior Sunni politician with Iraqiya, Tareq al-Hashimi.

Allawi's list won the March 7 vote by two seats over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led coalition. Neither bloc won a majority to form a government, although al-Maliki has come close by joining forces with another Shiite coalition.

Allawi insists his bloc should get the first crack at forming a government.

Al-Sistani's office declined to comment on Sunday's meeting. The cleric's opinion on political matters is often sought by Iraqi political leaders across the spectrum. Other influential figures in Iraqi politics, such as the U.N.' representative in Iraq, also seek his counsel, but al-Sistani rarely intervenes openly or comments publicly on Iraq's political process.

In an interview with the London-based newspaper Sharq al-Awsat, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, said the Shiite clergy in Najaf and in neighboring Iran have been pressuring Iraq's Shiite politicians to unify their positions and work for national unity with Sunnis and Kurds.

Iraq's two powerful Shiite blocs this month formed an alliance that is just four seats short of a majority needed to form the government, but the coalition's members cannot agree on who should be the next prime minister.

"Pressure to unite the Shiites is coming from the Shiite religious leadership in Najaf and Iran," Talabani said in Sunday's interview with the paper.

Iraq's two main Shi'ite political blocs agreed to unite weeks ago but the merger is hung up on disagreements about how to choose a prime minister and ways to limit his power, officials with the two coalitions said.

Sorting out the disputes may further delay a new government after an inconclusive parliamentary election nearly three months ago, deepening a power vacuum that has opened a door to insurgents determined to attack Iraq's nascent democracy.

State of Law, headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a bloc whose leaders have close ties to Iran, said on May 4 they would join to form a single bloc in parliament.

But the two sides have had contentious talks on mechanisms to choose their candidate for prime minister, effective guarantees to put the brakes on his authority and the formulation of a detailed government program, officials said.

Many of the proposals made by INA are aimed at weakening the powers of the next PM to preclude a lapse into dictatorship seven years after a U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq from 1979 to 2003.

Maliki, who rose from obscurity as a compromise candidate after elections in 2005, wants the job back.

He is vigorously opposed by a key component of INA, the Sadrist political movement of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia was crushed by government forces dispatched by Maliki in 2008.

State of Law officials say rivals are using the fear of unilateral decision-making and dictatorship as excuses to illegally weaken the premier by limiting his power over security and finance and by trying to politicise the security forces.

"They say that they want to turn the prime minister into a traffic cop, not a decision maker," said Haider al-Ebadi, a senior member of State of Law and Maliki's Dawa Party.

"This is a fatal error against Iraq."

Maliki's State of Law coalition took second place in the March 7 election with 89 seats in the new 325-seat parliament. INA placed third with 70 and Kurdish blocs won about 58.

Together INA and State of Law would have close to the 163 seats needed to form a government.

In addition to the Sadrists, INA includes the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a former Maliki ally that parted company with Dawa before the March election.

One of the most controversial power-sharing proposals from Maliki's rivals in INA is to appoint three deputy prime ministers, each from a different faction and each in charge of one of three major portfolios -- security, finance and services.

Another proposal would see the formation of a high-level security committee that includes representatives from each of the blocs with full authority over security.

"The goal is to transform the theory of the division of power to reality on the ground," said a senior INA leader who asked not to be named.

Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, an Iraqi analyst, said Maliki's desire to hold his job could lead to a dangerous sharing of power.

"Division of control over the security file means Iraq will slide into disaster, especially when the American troops complete their withdrawal by 2011," Sumaidaie said. "Maliki is ready to satisfy ISCI, Sadrists and Kurdish and give them what they want until he finds himself without anything to control."

The disputes among Shi'ite blocs that have already agreed to merge may indicate weeks of tough talks ahead before Iraq has a new government after an election Iraqis hoped would stabilise their nation following years of sectarian warfare.

Nearly 12 weeks after the vote, the final results have yet to be certified. The resulting power vacuum threatens Iraq's fragile security as U.S. troops prepare to leave.

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition, with strong support from Sunnis, won two more seats than Maliki's State of Law, has warned that any attempt by the united Shi'ite blocs to exclude his alliance from government could result in renewed sectarian bloodshed.

The fight over the premiership will escalate once Iraq's Supreme Court certifies the election results, said Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with International Crisis Group.

"This struggle could go on for some time, and Iraqi politicians will have to take care not to allow spoiler groups to exploit the power vacuum with violent attacks that could unsettle the process and trigger mutual recriminations and violence within the political class," he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama’s first formal national security strategy describes a coming era in which the United States will have to learn to live within its limits — a world in which two wars cannot be sustained for much longer and the rising powers inevitably begin to erode some elements of American influence around the globe.

Obama argues that the United States is confident enough to live with that reality and that after nearly a decade of organizing its national security policy around counterterrorism, it must return to a broader agenda. “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone,” Obama says in the introduction of the strategy released on Thursday.

“Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”

But this document, required by Congress, is also bound to reignite the argument over the way Obama has redirected American foreign policy over the past 16 months. His critics — inclined to portray him as too eager to apologize for America’s failings and too willing to surrender the nation’s role as the single, indispensable superpower — are likely to extract elements of the new document to bolster their case.

But to Obama’s team, it is a document that recognizes the world as it is and ends an era of illusion in which Washington confused projecting power with achieving results. “We are no less powerful,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday at the Brookings Institution. “We are shifting from mostly direct application and exercise of American power,” she said, to one of indirection, that requires patience and partners, and gets results more slowly.

“In a world like this, American leadership isn’t needed less,” she said. “It is needed more. And the simple fact is that no global problem can be solved without us.”

The 52-page document tries to blend the idealism of Obama’s campaign promises with the realities of his confrontations with a fractious and threatening world. It describes an America “hardened by war” and “disciplined by a devastating economic crisis,” and it concludes that the United States cannot sustain extended wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan while fulfilling other commitments.

That line is just one of many subtle slaps at former President George W. Bush. While Bush’s 2002 document explicitly said the United States would never allow the rise of a rival superpower, Obama argues that America faces no real military competitor but that global power is increasingly diffuse.

Both Clinton and the principal author of the report, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, argued that Obama recognized that reality when he pressed the Group of 8 nations — the largest industrialized economies and Russia — to cede more power to the Group of 20, which includes fast-emerging powers like China, India and Brazil.

Although Obama has put a renewed focus on the Afghan war and increased C.I.A. drone strikes against militants in Pakistan, the strategy rejects Bush’s focus on counterterrorism as the organizing principle of security policy.

Those efforts “to counter violent extremism” —Obama avoids the word Islamic — “are only one element of our strategic environment and cannot define America’s engagement with the world.”

He goes on to argue that “the gravest danger to the American people and global security continues to come from weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons.” But he also dwells on cyberthreats, climate change and America’s dependence on fossil fuels as fundamental national security issues, issues that received little or no attention in Bush’s document, although Bush focused on them more in his second term.

“It is a rather dramatic departure from the most recent prior national security strategy,” said Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The differences are clearest in a section on the use of force, which makes no mention of pre-emptive attacks against countries or non-state actors who may pose a threat, as Bush did in 2002. But Obama does not explicitly rule out striking first.

“While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction,” he says. When it is necessary, he adds, “we will seek broad international support.”

Bush’s aides had said they would not seek a “permission slip” for such actions. Obama phrases that idea more softly, saying “the United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests, yet we will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force.”

Obama also defines security more broadly than his predecessor did, making the case, for example, that reducing the budget deficit is critical to sustaining American power.

Clinton focused much of her Brookings presentation on that theme, arguing that American commanders and diplomats see the long-term national debt as one of the largest threats to American influence and to the country’s ability to project power abroad.

Still, for all its self-conscious rejection of the Bush era, the document reflects elements of continuity. For example, it does not disavow using the state secrets act to withhold information from courts in terrorism cases, although it argues for prudent and limited use. It also insists that “we will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades.”

It does not make the spread of democracy the priority that Bush did, but it embraces the goal more robustly than is typical for Obama, a reflection of a struggle in his administration about how to handle a topic so associated with Bush. Obama commits to “welcoming all peaceful democratic movements” and to “supporting the development of institutions within fragile democracies.”