Shiite Muslim politicians backed by Iraq's most prominent religious leader announced a powerful coalition of candidates yesterday that's likely to sweep January's parliamentary...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — Shiite Muslim politicians backed by Iraq’s most prominent religious leader announced a powerful coalition of candidates yesterday that’s likely to sweep January’s parliamentary elections.

The group, the United Iraq Alliance, didn’t outline a platform, but several candidates said setting a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops would be a cornerstone of their campaign.

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The alliance, formed under the auspices of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is touted as the Shiites’ vehicle to power after decades of political and religious oppression under Saddam Hussein. Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population, and millions consider al-Sistani’s pronouncements to be law.

The slate of 228 candidates includes clerics, secular former exiles and a sprinkling of religious and ethnic minorities. Among them is Ahmed Chalabi, whose position on the list, No. 10, all but ensures that he’ll win a seat in the new national assembly.

Chalabi, once promoted by Pentagon officials as a potential leader of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, fell out of favor with U.S. officials amid accusations that he passed U.S. secrets to Iran.

Other key candidates belong to two leading Shiite religious parties with strong links to Iran: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party. Top officials of those parties sought refuge in Iran during Saddam’s rule.

Some prominent Shiite politicians weren’t included in the coalition, including interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose party, the Iraqi National Accord, follows a secular agenda. Allawi is expected to run for election, however.

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In announcing the slate, officials said the alliance wouldn’t agree to postpone elections, now set for Jan. 30, despite Iraq’s rampant violence and the insistence of some rival Sunni Muslim factions that the vote be delayed.

Sunni clerics from the Association of Muslim Scholars urged Sunnis to boycott the election to protest last month’s U.S.-led assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.

However, one Sunni group that had called for a delay, the Iraqi Islamic Party, quietly submitted a 275-candidate list yesterday. Party officials told The Associated Press they wanted to reserve the right to take part in the vote if the election is not postponed.

Because of the violence raging in Sunni areas, there are fears many Sunnis won’t participate. In contrast, preparations for the election are well advanced in the mostly Shiite south of the country, where enthusiasm is building among Iraq’s Shiite majority for their long-awaited chance to choose their own government.

The main Kurdish parties will contest the vote with their own unified list, Kurdish leaders have said.

January’s elections will choose a 275-member national assembly that will write a new constitution.

Al-Sistani’s success in uniting Shiite factions is the latest example of his ability to influence some of the most important milestones of post-Saddam Iraq.

So great is his influence that some candidates on the Shiite ticket said they weren’t sure they even needed to campaign. When asked which other candidates posed competition, several Shiite politicians smiled or chuckled. They swatted away questions about whether an al-Sistani-backed slate is assured victory.

“It’s the reality in Iraq that most people are religiously inclined,” said Hussain Shahristani, a prominent nuclear physicist who’s on the list. “This list does represent that particular situation.”

Shahristani said the alliance was the result of two months of intense negotiations that at times appeared doomed by the various parties’ conflicting agendas.

“This particular alliance has brought together really divergent views, people on the extremes of the political spectrum,” he said. “To bring these people together was not an easy thing to do.”

Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Qassim Mohammed contributed to this report from Najaf, Iraq. Additional information is from The Associated Press and Chicago Tribune.