Leading Shiite Opposes Iraqi Unity Coalition

Iraqi efforts to build a U.S.-backed, political coalition across sectarian lines appeared in jeopardy Saturday, with the country's most revered Shiite cleric reportedly saying that the unity of Shiites, who control the biggest bloc in parliament, was paramount.

On Friday, the U.S. military announced five more American troop deaths, making December the second deadliest month for U.S. servicemen in 2006.Gunmen

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates rushed back to Washington to give President George W. Bush his advice on transforming U.S. policy in Iraq after holding three days of talks in the war zone with military and political leaders. He was scheduled to meet Bush on Saturday morning.

Members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition in parliament, gathered to seek guidance at the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in Najaf, after traveling to the holy city over the past few days. Al-Sistani holds no political post and rarely emerges from his home and adjacent office, but he has strong influence over Shiite politics.

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Some members of the Shiite alliance have sought a coalition that would include Kurds and Sunnis, and sideline radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose militia fighters are blamed for much of Iraq's sectarian violence. But lawmakers who attended the meeting with al-Sistani said the cleric opposed any move that would divide Shiites.

"Al-Sistani supported us in having the same negative attitude, saying that he does not support such blocs because they will break Shiite unity," said Ali al-Adib, a lawmaker in the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

"There are obstacles in the face of forming this coalition, because al-Sistani does not support it. So we will work to strengthen the (Shiite) alliance," said Hassan al-Sunnaid, a Dawa Party member who was briefed on the Najaf meetings.

Such a development could frustrate U.S.-backed efforts to persuade Iraq's political leaders to set aside sectarian interests and work together for the sake of national unity. Without progress in Iraqi politics, some observers say, the security situation in the country is likely to remain tenuous.

The prime minister, a Shiite, had relied heavily on the support of al-Sadr, whose 30 loyalists in the 275-seat parliament and six ministers in the 38-member Cabinet boycotted politics after al-Maliki met U.S. President George W. Bush in Jordan recently.

Al-Sadr's walkout revealed the depth of division within the 130-seat Shiite bloc in parliament, where some lawmakers who are viewed as moderate have grown weary of the radical cleric's confrontational tactics. Al-Sistani is also believed to be uncomfortable with the younger al-Sadr, a firebrand whose fighters waged battles against American troops that left parts of Najaf in ruins.

After meeting al-Sistani, the Shiite lawmakers visited al-Sadr. The cleric has agreed to allow his supporters to rejoin the government, officials close to him have said. Their walkout had prevented the government from passing laws, creating a political deadlock alongside a deteriorating security environment.

"There is a great hope that Muqtada will return today to the alliance," said Khaled al-Attiya, an independent who is parliament's deputy speaker.

This month, 76 American troops have died in Iraq, the same number that were killed in April. With nine days remaining in December, the monthly total of U.S. deaths could meet or exceed the death toll of 105 in October.

Gates was scheduled to see Bush at the mountain retreat of Camp David on Saturday morning. The White House said Bush would meet his full National Security Council next Thursday during a stay at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. That session was designed to whittle down the options rather than make final decisions, said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.

Bush is considering whether to quickly send thousands of additional U.S. troops to the country to control the violence. There are 140,000 American troops in Iraq.

Before leaving Baghdad, Gates declined to say whether he plans to recommend a short-term increase in U.S. troop levels, but said he believes there is "a broad strategic agreement between the Iraqi military and Iraqi government and our military."

An Iraqi military intelligence officer was slain in a drive-by shooting on Saturday south of Baghdad, police said.

Gunmen attacked 1st Lt. Hussein Jabir at 7:30 a.m. as he was leaving his home in downtown Diwaniyah, 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Baghdad, police said.

Also Saturday, U.S.-led forces killed one person and detained nine other suspects in a raid on a militant hideout in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, and Iraqi forces targeting a cell of the extremist Al Qaeda in Iraq group captured seven people in Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

On Friday, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops captured 27 people suspected of bomb-making and weapons trafficking in an operation west of Fallujah, the U.S. military said.

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