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Sistani Backs Coalition Government

8:16 AM, Dec 20, 2006 • By DANIEL MCKIVERGAN
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The International Herald Tribune reports on a bit of good news:

In the three and a half years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has been the spiritual custodian of Shiite political dominance here, corralling Iraq's fractious Shiite political parties into a single alliance to rule the country after centuries of oppression

But the ayatollah has grown increasingly distressed as the Shiite-led government has proven incapable of taming the violence and improving public services, and he now appears to be backing away from his insistence that the Shiite bloc be the dominant political player here and hold together at all costs, Iraqi and Western officials say.

In recent days, he has given his tentative approval to a proposed American- backed coalition of powerful Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political parties, the officials say. If it succeeds in becoming the main political force in government, the coalition could dilute Shiite power and ultimately lead to the rupture of the ruling Shiite bloc.

The leaders of the multisectarian coalition say they are seeking to chart a moderate political course by isolating extremist parties and politicians, particularly the powerful Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose loyalists comprise a major part of the Shiite bloc.

The aging and reclusive Sistani is considered the final arbiter of Shiite participation in the new coalition, and his willingness to approve it adds greater momentum to the Iraqi and U.S. efforts. So much so that leaders of the Iraqi parties trying to form the new coalition felt confident enough to announce their intentions at a televised news conference last weekend.

Still, there are many roadblocks to pulling this off. My guess is that any change in the goverment will also be accompanied by a change in military strategy in and around Baghdad. Reestablishing confidence in the government has to be a top priority.