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Iraqi Shi'ite Groups Form New Alliance Without Prime Minister

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite Muslim partners have announced the formation of a new coalition to fight the next election that did not include him.

No reason was given publicly for the exclusion of Maliki's Dawa party but the increasingly assertive prime minister had demanded a greater say in the alliance and also insisted the coalition be broadened to include more Sunnis and Kurds.

The new alliance headed by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), one of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite groups, also includes followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and other smaller groups and influential individuals.

"I wish that our brothers in the Dawa party would be among us today and God willing, efforts will continue to include everyone, with Dawa at the top of the list," Iraqi Vice President and ISCI member Adel Abdul-Mehdi told reporters on August 24.

The public show of regret at the absence of Maliki and Dawa was a rare open show of division between Shi'ite politicians who prefer to debate such issues behind the scenes.

Maliki's Dawa party and his allies performed well in provincial elections earlier this year, mainly at ISCI's expense. Splits within the once monolithic Shi'ite bloc could spell more strife in a country already wracked by violence.

Many blame a spate of huge bombings in the last few months on intrasectarian strife.

However, the divisions among Iraq's majority Shi'ites could also mark the start of less sectarian alliances, as the blocs scrabble for partners among minority Kurds and Sunnis.

Those close to Maliki accuse ISCI of hoarding too much power within the new alliance to itself.

Maliki's allies have also expressed their objections to its mostly Shi'ite character, as the prime minister, once seen as highly sectarian, tries to rebrand himself as a nationalist.

The move is aimed at trying to co-opt Iraq's Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds, whose feuds with Iraq's Shi'i'te majority threaten to unravel the country's fragile security gains.

Few notable representatives of Iraq's Sunni minority were visible at a news conference to announce the new alliance, and no Kurds were apparent.

Speakers at the news conference to announce the new coalition focused on national unity, nationalism and a refutation of sectarianism. They also offered prayers for ISCI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is gravely ill.

Iraq's current ruling Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, swept to power in 2005, but has since disintegrated.