BAGHDAD - Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric assured leaders of the Sunni-backed coalition that narrowly won the March election that no group would be excluded from the new government, representatives of the Iraqiya list said Sunday.
The 83-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is revered by Iraq's majority sect and carries great weight with the country's Shiite politicians, who have dominated the Iraqi government since the U.S. invasion in 2003 that overthrew Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.
"Al-Sistani stressed national unity and . . . the importance of forming the government as soon as possible," said Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who heads the Iraqiya coalition.
Speaking to reporters in Najaf after the meeting, Allawi said the cleric emphasized that the next government should serve the people without "excluding and marginalizing any group," in an apparent reference to the minority Sunnis, who have felt politically sidelined since 2003.
Al-Sistani also told Iraqiya leaders that he had "no veto" power over which politicians serve, said Tariq al-Hashimia, a senior Sunni politician with Iraqiya.
Allawi's list won the March 7 vote by two seats over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led coalition. Neither bloc won a majority to form a government, although al-Maliki has come close by joining forces with another Shiite coalition. Allawi insists his bloc should get the first crack at forming a government.
Al-Sistani's office declined to comment on Sunday's meeting. The cleric's opinion on political matters is often sought by Iraqi political leaders across the spectrum. Other influential figures in Iraqi politics, such as the U.N. representative in Iraq, also seek his counsel, but al-Sistani rarely intervenes openly or comments publicly on Iraq's political process.