more from the wires about leadership rivalry, shifting alliances and growing opposition front in iraq

Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim agree to a truce. Sadrists say the agreement pertains to armed conflict between Badr and Mahdi Army militias, does not signal political reconciliation with the government. Excerpt:

BAGHDAD (AP) – Two of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders agreed yesterday to end a bitter rivalry in a bid to end months of armed clashes and assassinations in the oil-rich south that have threatened to spread into a wider conflict. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the largest Shiite political party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, promised to stop the bloodshed and enhance cooperation between their two movements.

An official in al-Sadr’s office in the holy city of Najaf called the agreement a “fresh start.”

Internal rivalries have been rising in recent months, particularly in the southern Shiite heartland, where factions have been vying for power as the British military has pulled back to a base at the Basra airport. The three-point agreement appeared to be aimed at reining in rival militants loyal to al-Sadr and al-Hakim before the fighting erupts into a full-fledged conflict that could shatter the relative unity of the Shiite-led governing apparatus.

It also comes as mainstream politicians from Iraq’s majority sect have been trying to bring al-Sadr back into the fold after his loyalists pulled out of the main Shiite bloc last month. The Sadrists’ pullout left the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes al-Hakim’s SIIC, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and some independents, with only 85 seats – a dramatic drop for an alliance that once held 130 seats in the 275-member Parliament.

Sadrist lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie said the agreement did not change the movement’s political opposition to al-Maliki’s beleaguered government but was aimed at “preventing clashes between the two groups and reducing the violence hitting the country.”

“We have agreed to form joint committees to investigate any friction and to determine the reasons and the people behind it,” he said, stressing the need for dialogue. “This agreement will mean less bloodshed.”

NYT’s Hugh Naylor reports that Syria is strengthening ties with Sunni Arab opponents of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government, looking to the waning of U.S. influence. However, this is irritating to Iran, further illustrating the regional tensions resulting from the elimination of the Baathist regime. Excerpt:

DAMASCUS, Syria, Oct. 6 — Syria is encouraging Sunni Arab insurgent groups and former Iraqi Baathists with ties to the leaders of Saddam Hussein’s government to organize here, diplomats and Syrian political analysts say. By building strong ties to those groups, they say, Syria hopes to gain influence in Iraq before what it sees as the inevitable waning of the American presence there.

“The Syrians feel American power is much weaker in Iraq than in the past,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus bureau chief of the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al Hayat. “Now they can take a bold public initiative like helping Iraq’s opposition organize without much fear, especially since President Bush has become a lame duck.”

In July, former Baathists opposed to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki scheduled a conference for insurgent groups — including two of the most prominent, the 1920s Revolution Brigades and Ansar al Sunna — at the Sahara Resort outside Damascus.

The meeting followed two others in Syria in January that aimed to form an opposition front to the government of Iraq, and an announcement in Damascus in July of the formation of a coalition of seven Sunni Arab insurgent groups with the goal of coordinating and intensifying attacks in Iraq to force an American withdrawal. That coalition has since expanded to incorporate other groups.

The July conference was canceled at the last minute, however, indicating the political perils of Syria’s developing strategy. It was called off by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, participants, diplomats and analysts said, primarily because of pressure from Iran.

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