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Iraq's Al-Sadr Ready For Alliances With Al-Maliki

Al-Sadr supporters at mass Friday prayer in central Baghdad in November
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Influential Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has reached out to foe Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as political factions scramble to form coalitions in the aftermath of Iraq's provincial elections last month.

Al-Sadr had withdrawn his ministers from Iraq's Shi'ite coalition government in 2007 in protest at what he said was a lack of will to eject U.S. forces from Iraq. Al-Maliki later launched military crackdowns on al-Sadr's Al-Mehdi Army militia.

An anti-American firebrand, al-Sadr has a huge following among Iraq's Shi'ite poor, and his allies won enough seats in the January 31 polls for Iraq's provincial councils to remain a political player. Shi'ites are the majority Muslim sect in Iraq.

Yet the vote was spread among myriad parties, meaning coalitions will be needed to wield power. They will have the strongest influence in picking powerful provincial governors.

"The political powers that won in the provincial councils want to form political alliances or coalitions for the coming stage and for agreement on crucial issues," al-Sadr said in his latest, undated, statement, without referring to al-Maliki. "I advise them to do this, and as fast as possible, because the hearts of Iraqis cannot be patient at the lack of services and growing disputes," he said, referring to the political bickering which has held up Iraq's postwar development.

The polls saw candidates affiliated with al-Maliki's Dawa party come first in all but one of the councils in Iraq's largely Shi'ite south, and in Baghdad, pushing out al-Sadr's arch foes, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI).

Al-Sadr said coalitions should not include the "sectarian powers of the past," most likely a reference to ISCI, which promoted itself as guardians of Shi'ite tradition and ritual, and had previously controlled many of Iraq's southern provinces.

Though supporters of a Shi'ite cleric, Sadrist candidates largely eschewed religious campaigning.

The ISCI was formed in Iran in exile during the rule of Saddam Hussein and is headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. The al-Hakim family is one of Iraq's great religious dynasties, rivaled only in prestige by the al-Sadrs. The rivalry has sometimes been bloody.

Al-Maliki, facing resentment from Iraq's Kurds and ISCI -- key allies in his ruling government, but who are now threatened by his growing strength -- has put feelers out for partners to bolster his rule, politicians close to him have said.

The expectation is that in many areas al-Maliki's supporters will ally themselves with Sadrists, giving al-Sadr an opportunity to get his followers back into Iraq's corridors of power.

Iraq's current ruling Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, may be nearing its end ahead of parliamentary elections this year.

Al-Sadr said if there was a will to renew the coalition without elements such as "sectarianism and factionalism," he would support it, and suggested the coalition be named the "United National Iraqi Alliance." The name is a poke in the eye for ISCI, which had pushed for a separate semi-autonomous Shi'ite region of Iraq, and whose ties to Iran are viewed with suspicion by Iraqi nationalists.