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Maliki Defeated in Iraq Elections: Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi Poised to Take Power

Five years ago he was denounced as an American puppet, but Iyad Allawi, the former Iraqi prime minister, is set for a surprising return to the center-stage of Iraqi politics.
 
 
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The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was last night poised to lose power as final election tallies showed that Iyad Allawi, the secularist challenger, had won most seats in the 325- member parliament.

The results released yesterday by the country's election commission showed Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya group winning 91 seats, narrowly beating the alliance led by Mr. Maliki into second place with 89 seats. Potential coalition partners are thought hostile to any deals that would keep Mr. Maliki in power. There is no guarantee that Mr Allawi, a former prime minister, will be able to form a ruling coalition either but the extent of his success is much greater than had been expected.

Violence marked the final day of election counting yesterday as two bombs in Diyala province killed 40 people and wounded more than 60. Iraq is not likely to return to the mass slaughter of recent years but the bloodshed underscored the ongoing political tensions.

In Baghdad protesters supporting Mr. Maliki backed his call for a recount of the March 7th poll and waved banners reading "No, no to fraud!" and "Where have our voices gone?" But the Independent High Electoral Council has denied allegations of widespread fraud and rejected demands for a manual recount. The UN's top representative in Iraq, Ad Melkert, also declared that the results were credible and urged all sides to accept them.

Iraqi leaders will now play an elaborate game of political chess as they negotiate over the next four or five months on how power is to be shared and who will form the next government. The two front runners -- the State of Law and Iraqiya -- will look for coalition partners among the other two important political groupings. These are the Kurds with about 42 seats and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) -- grouping together two Shia religious parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the followers of the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- with around 70.

The election campaign saw sectarian hatred deepen between Shia and Sunni. Sunni leaders were banned from running as parliamentary candidates at the last moment because of alleged past membership of the Ba'ath party. Mr. Maliki abandoned his previous nationalist and non-sectarian rhetoric in order to appeal to core Shia voters. State of Law media outlets denounced Mr. Allawi as a CIA puppet linked to Saddam Hussein who was not even properly Iraqi because of his Lebanese mother.

Despite this, many Shia must have voted for Mr. Allawi, particularly in Baghdad, but overall Iraqis voted as in the past along sectarian and communal lines. Mr. Allawi, though himself a secular Shia, owed his election success largely to wholesale backing from the Sunni Arabs who make up about a fifth of the Iraqi population. Either Mr. Maliki or the INA headed the poll in the provinces where there is a Shia majority, while the Kurds voted for Kurdish parties within the area ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

While the election has showed that Iraq is divided and even unstable, this does not necessarily imply there will be a return to the violence of 2003-7. The last parliamentary election of December 2005 was boycotted by many Sunni who supported armed insurrection against the government and the US occupation.

This year the Sunni participated even more strongly than the Shia. "One of the main features of this year's election is the return of Sunni self-confidence," said the Iraqi commentator Ghassan Attiyah. Having demonstrated their political strength at the ballot box, it is unlikely the Sunnis will resort to armed struggle again.