He served as the U.S.-appointed prime minister in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. During that time he won enemies for his backing of U.S. military campaigns in both the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and the Shiite town of Najaf — although more recently, many have praised his stand as a sign of his willingness to deal harshly with militant groups.
Allawi’s path to a coalition government is anything but assured. He will face significant challenges finding allies who want to align with him.
For starters, many of his Sunni backers are anathema to the country’s Kurdish population, who are considered key to any coalition. The Kurds have often clashed with Sunni Arabs in disputed territories that the Kurds claim stretching from the Syrian border to the Iranian border.
In the northern Ninevah province, one of Allawi’s main backers — Osama al-Nujaifi — is viewed with almost vitriolic hatred by Kurds, who might lobby for Allawi to dump him and others before they would consider joining his coalition.
Many Shiites also view Allawi’s Sunni allies as little more than Saddam-era holdovers hoping for a return to the Baathist regime who once ruled the country.
His attempts to run on his own merits failed miserably during the last parliamentary elections in December 2005, when his U.S.-supported alliance was trounced. But Allawi, who once fought off an assassination attempt by a machete-wielding assailant believed to be sent by Saddam, has shown a keen instinct for political survival.
In the current campaign, Allawi’s bloc provided a stark contrast to the religious orientation of the two large, Shiite-led coalitions led by the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, and al-Maliki’s Dawa Party. His political rallies were Western in style, with music and dancing — a contract with the more sober rallies for the religious parties.
Al-Maliki campaigned with all the benefits of incumbency: easy air time on national TV, the ability to dole out favors to local officials in exchange for their support, and a record of helping stop some of the country’s violence.
The prime minister, known as a hardline Shiite during his first couple of years in power, has more recently transformed himself into a law-and-order nationalist who has occasionally reached out to Sunnis, who make up about 15-20 percent of Iraqi’s population.
While trying to re-establish a strong central government — most notably by routing a Shiite militia that ruled parts of Baghdad and Iraq’s second-largest city, Basra — al-Maliki has also alienated many key constituencies by governing with a heavy hand. His support for a ban of hundreds of candidates with alleged ties to Saddam’s regime severely undercut any support he had from Sunnis, who felt the ban unfairly targeted their candidates.
Friday’s results were based on numbers released by the election commission and compiled by The Associated Press. The commission released the seat allocation by province but did not include an overall number of seats won.
Allawi fared well in provinces with significant Sunni populations such as Ninewah, Anbar, Salaheddin, and Kirkuk, while al-Maliki won more support in areas with significant Shiite populations such as Baghdad, and much of the Shiite south.
Significantly, though, Allawi did better in Shiite areas than al-Maliki did in Sunni regions. Allawi managed to win three seats in the southern province of Basra, for example. That proved key to his victory.
Hours before the results were announced, two bombings near a restaurant in a city north of Baghdad killed at least 40 people — a harbinger of a spike in violence that many Iraqis fear could accompany lengthy negotiations on forming a coalition government.
An increase in attacks could complicate U.S. plans to reduce troop levels from 95,000 to 50,000 by the end of August. All U.S. forces are slated to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
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