The Bush administration's courtship of the biggest Shi'ite party in Iraq could worsen a dangerous rift between rival Shi'ite groups and ultimately give Iran a greater political role, a think tank said on Wednesday.
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, a cornerstone of the political alliance behind Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, has enjoyed close relations with Washington since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, unlike the rival Shi'ite movement led by anti-American cleric Moqtada al Sadr.
But the International Crisis Group urged the United States to adopt a more evenhanded approach to the majority Shi'ite community, saying in a report that Shi'ite rivalries are likely to have more influence on Iraq's future than the sectarian conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis.
"The U.S. has fully backed (SIIC) in this rivalry. This is a risky gambit," the Belgium-based think tank said.
It warned that U.S. reliance on fighters from SIIC's Badr Organization as a counterweight to Sadr's Mehdi Army militia is "bound to backfire, polarizing the Shi'ite community and creating the foundations for endemic intra-Shi'ite strife."
"While Washington is intent on stabilizing Iraq, for example, (SIIC) is bent on ruling it," the report said.
It described SIIC's rivalry with Sadr as a class struggle between a Shi'ite merchant elite represented by SIIC and the far more numerous Shi'ite urban underclass devoted to Sadr.
SIIC members are believed to make up a sizable segment of Iraq's security forces, and the party holds about one-quarter of the parliament seats occupied by Maliki's ruling Shi'ite Alliance.
But SIIC could not prevail alone in free elections and would face a tough challenge from the Sadr movement even if it sought power at the head of a coalition of political parties, the think tank said.
"SIIC's empowerment through U.S. protection and support may open the door to greater Iranian involvement, especially once U.S. forces begin to withdraw," it said.
"SIIC's control over government security forces is far from complete and is challenged by many. As a result, it may seek even greater Iranian support in its battle for power."
SIIC was founded in Iran in 1982 by Iraqi Shi'ite exiles who returned to Iraq after the 2003 invasion toppled Saddam.
Although the party has tried to bolster its Iraqi credentials, the International Crisis Group said SIIC has not quite managed to shake off its past as an Iran-bred group of exiles with a sectarian agenda.
It said the United States should force SIIC to undergo fundamental change, including a purge of members involved in sectarian killings, torture and divisive rhetoric.
The think tank also urged the Bush administration to help move SIIC away from demands for a Shi'ite super region spanning Iraq's nine southern governates, an idea that has stirred widespread opposition, notably from Sadr, who portrays himself as a nationalist. ( Reuters )