Shi'ite groups form new alliance excluding Iraqi PM

The Iranian-backed Shi'ite parties that helped propel Iraq's prime minister into power three years ago dumped him Monday as their candidate for re-election, forming a new alliance to contest the January vote. The move dealt a blow to Nouri al-Maliki's chances to keep his job next year and set the stage for a showdown between competing factions in the Shi'ite coalition that had dominated Iraq's government since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Al-Maliki now faces pressure to make a deal with minority Sunni parties to strengthen his position. Because his Dawa party is relatively small, he has never been able to rely on a loyal political base. Instead, he has developed a reputation as a strong leader by crushing militias loyal to anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra. The Shi'ite prime minister's efforts to win public confidence by portraying himself as a champion of security have taken a battering in recent weeks. A wave of horrific bombings has called into question the government's ability to protect the Iraqi people two months after most US forces pulled out of urban areas.