- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

BAGHDAD — Partial election returns released yesterday showed a clergy-backed Shi’ite coalition performing better than expected in Baghdad and southern Iraq, diminishing Iyad Allawi’s chances of holding onto the position of prime minister in political horse-trading that already has begun.

Analysts said the best chance to hold on to power for Mr. Allawi — the most pro-U.S. candidate in the race — now lies in forming an alliance with the Kurdish parties based in northern Iraq. Any grouping that can amass one-third of the votes in the new 275-seat national assembly will be able to block the formation of a new government.

The United Iraqi Alliance, backed by Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, received 1.1 million of the 1.6 million ballots that have been counted in Baghdad and five Shi’ite-dominated provinces, according to the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq.

An estimated 8 million votes were cast nationwide.

The alliance had been expected to post its best results in the southern provinces, where devout Shi’ites had been told it was their religious duty to vote. But the alliance also outpolled Mr. Allawi’s list by 350,069 votes to 140,364 in Baghdad — the cosmopolitan capital where the prime minister had hoped to do well.

“Large numbers of Shia voted along sectarian lines,” said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, head of the Sunni Arab-led Constitutional Monarchy Party, who likened the vote outcome to a “Sistani tsunami.”

“Americans are in for a shock,” he said. “A lot of people in the country are going to wake up in shock.”

But international election officials warned observers not to read too much into the numbers, which did not include tallies from the country’s Sunni or Kurdish provinces. Electoral commission member Safwat Rashid said the final vote total would not be known for another week.

However, the Baghdad numbers came from “mixed” neighborhoods where the secular Mr. Allawi had needed to do well, and Mr. Hussein said the prime minister also performed poorly in Babel province, a relatively urbanized, mixed Shi’ite-Sunni area south of Baghdad.

Alliance leaders were openly gloating yesterday, predicting that they would win an outright majority in the new legislature.

“I think we are almost there and even more,” said Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, deputy chief of staff to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leader of the Data Party — one of the two main parties in the alliance.

Mr. Kadhimi said the alliance would insist that one of its members become prime minister, arguing that Mr. Allawi had been invited to join the list months ago but declined in order to create his own party.

Mr. Allawi “had his chance,” he said.

Other analysts questioned whether the alliance would achieve a majority and noted that even if it did, it would not be able to name a government on its own.

Under the interim constitution, a two-thirds vote in the new assembly will be required to name a president and two vice presidents. Those three, in turn, will name a prime minister.

As a result, there will have to be a broad consensus involving at least two of the likely top three groupings — the alliance, Mr. Allawi’s party and the Kurdish list. This could make kingmakers of the Kurds, a group whose members once were slaughtered and gassed by Saddam Hussein.

“We will see how it will be,” said Hanna Edwar, a female candidate in the electoral list known as My Homeland, or Watani. “The Kurds will be the balance of the coming composition of the government, because they will have a big percentage” in the new assembly.

“They will forge a coalition either with the Shi’ites or with Allawi — it depends on how much they are promised and how much they will get,” she said.

After the top three electoral lists are numerous smaller parties — ranging from moderate Sunnis to the Communist Party — each of which is expected to win some seats in the assembly. And each may be courted to join whatever political bloc emerges from the election.

“The government cannot be formed without a variety of Iraqis. The Iraqi people are made up of various peoples, and that is why the government should reflect this variety,” Mr. Jaafari, told The Washington Times.

Left in the cold are the more militant Sunnis — including those who were once Saddam’s favored leaders and made up a feared militia — who rejected the election and whatever government results from it as illegitimate.

In some areas, those Sunnis who did try to vote were unable to because of security worries, Mr. Rashid of the electoral commission acknowledged at a press conference yesterday.

He said U.S. and Iraqi forces in Nineveh, the province surrounding Mosul, initially allowed authorities to open only 90 of 330 polling stations. Authorities tried to open more stations as concerns eased during the day, but were unable to get supplies to all of them.

“We tried to send the boxes and ballot papers” to those stations, Mr. Rashid said. “In some places we succeeded, and unfortunately in some other places due to transportation and other things, we failed.”

He could not say how many stations ended up opening.

Assyrian Christian groups, largely based in the north, also have complained that Kurdish officials blocked the delivery of ballots and boxes to their areas, leaving them unable to vote.

Some Sunnis said they were not likely to revert to violence unless they feel the new government is ignoring their needs.

“Then we will take whatever measures,” said one older Sunni man, who asked not to be identified.

Leaders of both the alliance and Mr. Allawi’s party have said they will look for ways to include Sunnis in the drafting of a new constitution — the main task of the new legislature. Alliance leaders also have promised that the new government will not be led by clerics.

“It is important to say the initiative of national dialogue has been put on the table,” said Mrs. Edwar. “We have to work together. Nobody can exclude anybody and not take into consideration other parties.”

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