Shi'ite delegates in Najaf for cleric's blessing

Delegates from seven Shi'ite parties that comprise the Iraqi parliament's largest voting bloc gathered in Najaf on Thursday to discuss the country's predicament in front of their holiest cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose word is considered binding by many Shi'ites. They sought al-Sistani's blessing for a governing coalition taking shape among Shi'ites, Kurds and one Sunni party - seen as a last-ditch effort at rare cooperation across the sectarian divide. Though al-Sistani will likely approve the deal, he fears the coalition could weaken the Shi'ite bloc, officials close to him said on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the press about their leader's concerns. The coalition, though not yet finalized, could govern Iraq more efficiently than that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been criticized for ties to another, more radical and anti-American cleric - Muqtada al-Sadr. "We will inform Grand Ayatollah (al-Sistani) about the political process, a Cabinet reshuffle, the security situation and ask al-Sadr to end the boycott and return to the political process," said Dr. Ali al-Adib, a member of al-Maliki's Dawa party and the Shi'ite parliamentary bloc. Al-Sadr's loyalists walked out of parliament and the Cabinet three weeks ago to protest the prime minister's meeting with US President George W. Bush in Jordan. The boycott has undercut al-Maliki's government and prevented the passage of legislation. Al-Sadr's movement would not be a part of the new coalition taking shape, but its existence could pressure the firebrand cleric to soften his own stance. Within days, he may secretly order his militia, the Madhi Army, to halt fighting for one month, said a prominent Shi'ite politician and another official close to al-Sadr, both speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations. After meeting al-Sistani in Najaf, the Shi'ite delegates will meet with al-Sadr, who also lives in Najaf, to try to pressure him to tell his followers to return to the government, said officials from several Shi'ite factions, including al-Sadr's movement. "A delegation will meet al-Sadr to convince him to rejoin the political process," an aide to al-Sadr said on condition of anonymity.