BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Iraq’s ruling Shiite Islamist parties struck a last-minute deal to patch up differences on Thursday and agreed to register as a united bloc for December 15 polls where they face a new Sunni Arab alliance.
But in a flare-up likely to fuel mistrust between Iraq’s two main religious sects, at least 21 Shiite militia fighters and two policemen were killed when they clashed with Sunni insurgents near Baghdad, an interior ministry official said.
Another five policemen and 12 members of the Mehdi Army loyal to nationalist Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr were wounded in the battle, which erupted after they tried to rescue a Mehdi Army member who was being held hostage, the official said.
There was no indication of casualties among the rebels.
The latest violence came as politicians in Baghdad were racing to finalise their slates by a Friday deadline to register parties and coalitions for the December parliamentary elections.
Officials within the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance said it would run as a single electoral list after late-night talks resolved disputes that had threatened to dissolve a grouping formed to fight Iraq’s first post-war election in January.
On Wednesday, three leading parties from the Sunni Arab minority, which largely boycotted that earlier vote, formed a coalition to contest the next election, although other Sunni politicians are likely to campaign separately.
The two main Kurdish movements, which joined the Shiite alliance in the interim government, have also agreed to run on a joint ticket again, despite long-standing rivalries.
Former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, has put together a broad list attempting to attract voters from across the sectarian and ethnic divides, Allawi’s office has said. It will be formally unveiled on Saturday.
Wednesday’s Sunni accord was the clearest sign yet that some Sunnis are turning to the ballot box.
The participation of substantial numbers of Sunnis in an October 15 constitutional referendum was hailed by the Iraqi government and Washington, even though Sunni areas voted overwhelmingly against the constitution â€” which they narrowly failed to veto.
US and Iraqi officials are likely to welcome the new Sunni alliance, but it was not clear if the group has much sway over hardline Sunni insurgents fighting the Shiite and Kurdish-led government and the US occupying force.
Members of parliament said that among changes agreed in the Shiite deal, Moqtada Sadr’s movement would have a more formal role in the alliance.
“The parties signed the agreement last night, shares are already being distributed according to each party and what it will get,” a source in the alliance said.
Three principle Shiite movements are involved: The powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), formed in exile in Iran to oppose Saddam Hussein and led by Abdul Aziz Hakim, the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, and Sadr’s movement.
Although Sadr has three allies in the present cabinet, he has been ambivalent in public about the government. His Mehdi Army has clashed recently across Shiite southern Iraq with the Badr militia forces of Hakim’s SCIRI.
Thursday’s battle with the insurgents is likely to fuel complaints by some Sunnis who say Iraq’s new police force has been infiltrated by or cooperates with Shiite militias, and so takes part in sectarian killings of Sunnis and assassinations of political foes.
The battle took place in Nahrawan, southeast of Baghdad, an area with a mixed Sunni and Shiite population where insurgents have staged major attacks on Iraqi police and US-led forces.
Baghdad’s southern hinterland, criss-crossed by irrigation canals and palm groves, provides shelter for guerrilla groups.
The Mehdi Army itself rose up twice against US and British forces in the south last year.
In January’s vote, with few Sunnis taking part, the United Alliance took a majority of seats, helped by the blessing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, spiritual guide to much of the long oppressed, 60 per cent Shiite majority.
Aides to the reclusive cleric, however, have indicated that he will refuse to back a specific party in the December vote.
The US military, which on Tuesday marked its 2,000th death since the 2003 invasion, said three more American soldiers were killed on Wednesday in two separate roadside bomb attacks.
The rise of the US death toll has added to pressure on President George W. Bush to show progress in Iraq. Protesters across the United States took part in hundreds of vigils and rallies on Wednesday.