BAGHDAD, Iraq – A cleric with links to Iran leads the candidate list of a powerful coalition of Iraq's mainstream Shiite Muslim groups for next month's election, an aide said Friday. The list also includes former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi (search) and some followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim — the head of Iraq's largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution — would stand to take a central position in the assembly that will create Iraq's next government and constitution, if the coalition takes most of the parliament seats in the Jan. 30 vote.
Backed by Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (search), the coalition — called the United Iraqi Alliance — hopes to draw the bulk of the vote from Iraq's Shiite majority. U.S.-backed interim Prime Minster Ayad Allawi, also a Shiite, has not joined the group and is drawing up his own candidate list.
The coalition's platform, which has not been finished, will include a call for working toward the withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq, members said.
"There must be a timetable for this," said Hussein al-Mousawi, an official of the Shiite Political Council, an umbrella group that has some parties represented in the alliance.
For now, troops are arriving in greater numbers, part of a U.S. plan to bolster security ahead of elections. In the southern city of Basra, Iraqi security officials reported that American soldiers ordered to Iraq had crossed the border with Kuwait on Friday.
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad declined to comment on the reported troop movement, citing security concerns. There are about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Washington announced the 12,000-troop increase last week, which will bring the U.S. military force to the highest level of the war, including the initial invasion in March 2003.
A U.S. helicopter crashed into another chopper on the ground Thursday night, killing two soldiers and wounding four others from Task Force Olympia, based in the northern city of Mosul, the military said. The AH-64 Apache struck the UH-60 Black Hawk, Lt. Col. Paul Hastings said, adding that the accident is under investigation.
Also Thursday, a U.S. Marine was killed in action in volatile Anbar province west of Baghdad, a region including Ramadi and Fallujah. Insurgents targeted Iraqi National Guard patrols in separate roadside bomb attacks Friday in Tikrit and Baqouba, wounding nine Iraqi soldiers, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Neal O'Brien said. Four civilians were also injured.
An American soldier pleaded guilty at his court-martial Friday to one count of unpremeditated murder and one count of soliciting another soldier to commit unpremeditated murder in the Aug. 18 killing of a severely wounded 16-year-old Iraqi male in Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City neighborhood, the scene of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and fighters loyal to al-Sadr, an anti-U.S. Shiite cleric.
Staff Sgt. Johnny M. Horne Jr., 30, of Winston-Salem, N.C., was among several soldiers who had found the wounded teenager in a burning truck with severe abdominal wounds. A criminal investigator said at an earlier hearing that the soldiers decided to kill him to "put him out of his misery."
The Shiite coalition's list of 228 candidates was created under the guidance of al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric. He has been working to unite Shiites to ensure victory and include representatives from Iraq's other diverse communities. Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people.
The list's completion puts the focus squarely on Iraq's Sunni Arab groups, who must decide whether to continue seeking a postponement of the vote, boycott it, or join the race.
Many have warned that Iraq's persistent violence could make a vote impossible — and if Sunnis boycott the balloting, it could undermine the results' credibility.
The coalition list includes some independent Sunni Muslims, members of the Yazidi minority religious sect and a Turkomen movement, among others — but it is dominated by Shiites — particularly the established Shiite parties.
In their first popular vote in decades, Iraqis will choose a 275-member assembly that will write a permanent constitution and pick a new government.
Individual candidates may run but voting will chiefly be done by party list. The number of seats coalitions win will be determined by the percentage of the vote they get — meaning that the higher on the list candidates are, the likelier they will get a seat in the new assembly.
"The different parties and the national figures asked (al-Sistani's) religious authority to help it to ... form an alliance that represents the Iraqi groups with its various religious, ethnic and geographic components," said nuclear physicist Hussain al-Shahristani, one of the six people on a commission named by al-Sistani to draw up the list.
The black-turbaned al-Hakim is the top candidate, said his secretary Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer.
Al-Hakim was the longtime head of SCIRI's armed wing, the Badr Brigade, which was based in Iran during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Al-Hakim returned to Iraq after Saddam's fall and took up the leadership of SCIRI after his brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, was killed in a car bombing last year.
Other names in the top 10 of the list are Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and interim Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Islamic Dawa Party, said al-Sagheer.
Chalabi, a leader of the opposition in exile, was touted as a possible new leader for Iraq by some in the Pentagon, but he fell out of favor with Washington this year. Since then, he has been trying to build grass-roots support among Shiites.
An adviser involved in the coalition talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some al-Sadr followers were included on the list, suggesting there was at least some support from the radical cleric.
The assembly created in the elections will pick a new president and two vice presidents, who will then select a prime minister. Its main task is to draw up a constitution, which — if adopted in a referendum next year — would form the legal basis for another general election to be held by Dec. 15, 2005.
On Friday, Iraq's electoral commission extended the deadline for candidate registration until Dec. 15. The deadline had been set to expire Friday.
One Sunni Arab group that had called for a delay in the election, the Iraqi Islamic Party, quietly submitted a 275-candidate list Thursday. Party officials told The Associated Press they wanted to reserve the right to take part in the vote if the election is not postponed.
Masked gunmen riding in a black BMW killed three members of Iraq's Hezbollah Shiite movement, which is one of the 23 groups in the United Iraqi Alliance, according Essa Sayid Jaafer, director of the group's political office.
It was unclear if the killings were related to the new coalition's announcement.