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By Muhanad Mohammed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's upcoming election may mark a departure from the sectarianism that plunged the country into civil war as Shi'ite and Sunni politicians join forces and emphasise nationalism and unity.
Iraqis have grown tired of the bloodshed between once dominant Sunnis and majority Shi'ites that erupted after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and propelled the once oppressed Shi'ites into power, analysts say.
The latest example of a trend that appears likely to be a central theme of the election due on January 16 occurred this week as former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, and Saleh al-Mutlaq, an independent Sunni, created an alliance.
"There are two trends -- the sectarian and divisive current, and a current of national unity. We are the current of national unity," Mutlaq said on Saturday at a chaotic news conference in a Baghdad country club.
While analysts caution that the politicians' anti-sectarian rhetoric might not be reflected in their convictions, the glimmer of national unity has given many Iraqis hope.
Overall violence has plunged in the past 18 months, but major attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist al Qaeda or adherents of Saddam's outlawed Baath party remain stubbornly common.
Last Sunday two suicide bombers detonated buses loaded with explosives outside the justice ministry and Baghdad governorate building, killing 155 people. On August 19, suicide bombers in trucks rocked the foreign and finance ministries, killing 95.
The January election will be a milestone as Iraq emerges from chaos. It will determine who runs Iraq as U.S. forces draw down ahead of a full withdrawal by 2012 and who presides over multi-billion dollar deals with global oil firms.
Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, seeking re-election by claiming credit for improved security, began the shift from overt sectarianism in provincial elections early this year.
His Dawa party and its allies, calling for a strong unified state and promising to deliver services, not strife, pummelled rivals across the Shi'ite south.
While many Sunnis doubt Maliki's desire for reconciliation and his government's independence from Shi'ite Iran, rivals appear to be copying the prime minister's nationalist stance.
"The sectarian fronts, whether Shi'ite or Sunni, are being rejected by Iraqis because they represent an era Iraqis are so keen to change," said Haider al-Mula, a member of the party formed by Allawi and Mutlaq.
COALITION WITH SUNNI LEADERS
Put in power by the major Shi'ite political forces in Iraq, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (ISCI) and followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Maliki is running in January in coalition with some Sunni tribal leaders.
Another alliance running in the January election was formed recently by prominent anti-al Qaeda Sunni tribal sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha and Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shi'ite.
Sceptics suspect the changes are only skin-deep.
"Current members of parliament enjoying so many privileges are looking for ways to get a foot in the door of the new parliament. They'll jump on any boat that ensures they continue to have those privileges," said political analyst Ali al-Nashmy.
The formation of new alliances is also a reflection of the rupturing of Sunni political groups, and there are fears their decision not to stand as a sectarian bloc may backfire on Sunnis if they find they are underrepresented in parliament.
A Sunni boycott of the 2005 elections led many to feel resentment at their disenfranchisement, fuelling the insurgency.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Reuters