- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — A jubilant Ayad Allawi claimed victory for his secular, anti-Iranian coalition as final parliamentary returns Friday showed him edging out the bloc of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who angrily vowed to fight the results.

The results, if they stand, will give Allawi the first opportunity to form a parliamentary majority and Iraq’s next government. But they do not automatically mean that he will become prime minister, and the narrow margin sets the stage for months of political wrangling.

“On this occasion, I’d like to congratulate the Iraqi people and extend the hand of friendship to all neighboring and world countries,” said Allawi, a secular Shiite politician and former prime minister who appealed across sectarian lines to minority Sunnis who have been out of power since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

In comments to cheering supporters at his Baghdad headquarters, he spoke of his desire to help build a stable region that would help “achieve prosperity for (Iraq’s) people.”

Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods, the site of vicious sectarian fighting just a few years ago, erupted in cheering, honking of horns and celebratory gunfire in support of the man whom they have endorsed as their own.

“Today is a historic and joyful day which will witness a change for the sake of Iraqi people,” said Hameed Marouf, an Allawi supporter in Azamiyah.

Regardless of who eventually comes out on top, the results of the March 7 elections suggest that millions of Iraqis are fed up with a political system that revolves around membership in one of the two major Islamic sects.

They also show that Iraqis — both Shiite and Sunni — are suspicious of Iranian influence. Allawi was widely seen as closer to the region’s Arab governments than to neighboring Shiite Iran.

The next prime minister will lead a government that presumably will be in power when the U.S. completes its scheduled troop withdrawal from Iraq next year. There has been fear among some in the West that a U.S. withdrawal would effectively leave Iraq as an Iranian puppet.

Al-Maliki, the U.S. partner in Iraq for the past four years, announced in a nationally televised news conference that he would not accept the results, which gave his bloc 89 seats to Allawi’s 91 in Iraq’s 325-seat parliament.

Gesturing angrily, he said he would challenge the vote count through what he described as legal process. By law, he would have until Monday to register his complaints with the election commission.

After the complaints are addressed by the election commission, the results may be revised and then finally submitted to the country’s Supreme Court, which must ratify them. The entire process could take weeks.

Al-Maliki and his supporters in his State of Law coalition had previously called for a re-count, saying there had been instances of vote rigging and fraud. But election officials had refused, and international observers have said the election was fair and credible.

The top U.N. official in Iraq, Ad Melkert, called on all sides to accept the results. That sentiment was echoed by U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, who praised what they described as a “historic electoral process,” and said they support the finding of election observers who found no evidence of widespread or serious fraud.

The news represents a spectacular turnaround for Allawi, a doctor who has spent much of his life in London as a leading member of the opposition to Saddam’s regime.

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