Dec. vote in Iraq already splitting

Religious secular parties, forming blocs


BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- The country's governing Shiite parties agreed yesterday to put forth a joint list of candidates in the December parliamentary elections, ensuring that the religious parties, all with strong Iranian ties, will be a formidable force in the new government.

The Shiite parties' step, combined with a similar move by three of the country's major Sunni political parties, virtually guarantees that the vote will divide along ethnic and sectarian lines, as it did during the recent constitutional referendum and last January's elections for a transitional Parliament.

With a deadline of today to present a list of candidates to the Iraqi electoral commission, the Shiite parties squabbled for much of the week, raising hopes among secular politicians such as Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, that the alliance would fracture.

This could have left more votes for moderate candidates, a result favored by the U.S.

One prominent politician, Ahmad Chalabi, a deputy prime minister and one-time Pentagon favorite, is likely to leave the Shiite alliance and run on his own slate, according to Ali Feisal al-Lami, one of Chalabi's closest political allies.

But his departure would have little immediate impact on the alliance because he has considerably less popular support now than the main religious groups.

Iraqi officials say it appears that the Arab electorate will be divided along two lines, religious vs. secular and Sunni vs. Shiite.

The largest vote-getters will be the major Sunni or Shiite religious blocs or the large secular bloc in the middle being put together by Allawi. Kurdish voters in Baghdad and the north are expected to support a Kurdish bloc, as they did in the past election.

Sectarian tensions flared yesterday as Shiite militiamen and the police clashed with Sunni Arab kidnappers southeast of Baghdad, leaving at least 21 dead and 17 wounded, said a Shiite leader and an Interior Ministry official.

The fighting began when members of the Mahdi Army, a militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebellious Shiite cleric, raided a village called Nehrawan to free a hostage taken by insurgents, said Sheik Abdul-Zahra al-Suweidi, a senior al-Sadr official.

Policemen joined the militia in the attack, he said, and at least eight of those killed were from the Mahdi Army.

The battle, the latest in a string of violent incidents involving the Mahdi Army, shows how little control both the Iraqi government and the U.S. military have over the militias.

The American military said three of its soldiers had been killed and four wounded in two roadside bomb attacks Wednesday. A roadside bomb in Kirkuk killed an Interior Ministry commando and wounded two others yesterday, a police official said. In Baghdad, gunmen killed an off-duty policeman.

As the violence unfolded, the country's political parties negotiated furiously in advance of today's deadline for candidate registration. Earlier in the week, the Shiite parties were divided over how many seats each of them should get on the coalition's list of candidates for parliament.

They managed to paper over those differences in last-minute deal-making, said Sheik Abbas al-Rubaie, the head of the Sadr political wing.

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