Deep divisions remain among the Shia parties and al-Maliki is said to be planning a multi-confessional coalition that will include tribal Sunni leaders.

'Multi-confessional coalition'

Ali al-Mussawi, an adviser to al-Maliki, said: "Mr Maliki wants a real national coalition, not just in the word, but in the programme and composition of the alliance."

The grouping formed without the Dawa party, to be called the Iraqi National Alliance, announced its list of election candidates at a news conference in Baghdad on Monday.

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a former prime minister and SIIC member, read a statement noting that Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the ailing leader of the Supreme Council, was absent because he is in hospital in Iran.

Also absent was al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran.

The announcement is a major shift in Shia politics, which have long been dominated by SIIC and the Dawa party.

The divisions among the Shia leaders could mark a move away from the sectarian alliances that have dominated Iraqi politics since 2003 as Shia blocs scramble
for partners among Kurds and Sunnis.

'No threat'

Several Sunnis are set to join the new Shia coalition, including a small faction from the western Anbar province that includes fighters who joined forces with US troops against al-Qaeda in Iraq and won power in provincial elections earlier this year.

Nouri al-Maliki hopes to attract Sunni groups to his coalition [AFP]
Sheikh Hameed al-Hais, who leads the Anbar faction, said: "Al-Qaeda announced their Islamic state and we managed to topple them. We call on the new alliance to be serious in dealing with security in Iraq."

Abdel Hadi Al-Hassani, a member of parliament for the Dawa party, told Al Jazeera that al-Maliki did not have to feel threatened by the new coalition: "People believe the honesty and leadership of al-Maliki, whose own alliance is the best to lead from any type of racism and sectarianism."

However, Adel Darwish, the political editor of the Middle East Magazine, said that if a motion of no confidence was tabled against al-Maliki and the new alliance voted for it then the prime minster would have to resign and elections would be held early.

"On the other hand, they might just keep him on his toes, waiting for the next election," Darwish said.

"Al-Maliki and his coalition have done much better in local government elections, but the way of Iraqi electoral law, which is proportional representation, would mean that Iraqis are going to vote along tribal and sectarian lines. And that is very dangerous for Mr al-Maliki in the next election." 

National elections are due to be held in Iraq by March 2010.