Top Shi’ite cleric in Iraq calls for unity

There are concerns that Sunnis will be largely excluded in the new govt.

Baghdad: The leader of the Sunni-backed coalition that won the most seats in Iraq`s March election said the country`s most influential Shi’ite cleric assured him in a meeting that no group would be excluded from the new government.

There are concerns that Sunnis will be largely excluded after the two Shi’ite blocs that came in second and third in the parliamentary vote formed an alliance likely to lead to another Shi’ite-dominated government, much like the current one. The Iraqiya coalition, led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, is not part of the alliance.

Allawi met Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, where the cleric lives. He said al-Sistani said the next government should serve without "excluding and marginalising any group," an apparent reference to minority Sunnis who have felt politically sidelined since 2003.

"Al-Sistani stressed national unity and... the importance of forming the government as soon as possible," Allawi, a secular Shi’ite, told reporters after the meeting.

Allawi`s list won 91 of 325 seats to al-Maliki`s 89. For either to form a majority government, they need to partner with other parties.

Though more than two months have passed since the March 07 vote, the formation of the government has been slowed by a number of challenges by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who lost to Allawi by two seats. Al-Maliki demanded a recount, but it did not change the final result.

Iraqi election officials last week said that two candidates have appealed the recount results that cost them their seats. Their complaints will likely delay the certification of results by the Supreme Court, a crucial step to move the process of forming a government along.

The 83-year-old al-Sistani is revered by Iraq`s majority Shi’ites and carries great weight with Shi’ite politicians, who have dominated government since the US-led invasion in 2003 that overthrew Saddam Hussein`s Sunni-dominated regime.

His opinion on political matters is often sought by political leaders across the spectrum. Other influential figures, such as the UN representative in Iraq, also seek his counsel, but al-Sistani rarely intervenes openly or comments publicly on the political process.

A source who attended the meeting in Najaf said Allawi asked al-Sistani to support him to form the government because his bloc won the most seats. But al-Sistani said he could not help because it was a matter of interpreting the Constitution.

The source asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.


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