A week on, Maliki pulls ahead in Iraq race

Early results showed Maliki’s State of Law bloc ahead in seven of 18 provinces, with the Iraqiya list headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in second place, leading in five.

The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), Maliki’s main competitor among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, trailed close behind, the last of three blocs leading a divided vote that reflects a nation fragmented by decades of sectarian and ethnic conflict.

The outcome of Iraq’s first parliamentary poll since 2005 will shape its future as nascent stability is tested by the coming U.S. troop withdrawal and political struggles undermining Iraq’s efforts to re-establish itself on the world stage.

Maliki, who many Iraqis credit for improving security, won almost twice as many votes as the INA in southern Basra, ground zero for a wave of new investment into Iraq’s rich oil sector.

Allawi’s Iraqiya, a secularist, cross-sectarian list, was a distance third in Basra, but initial results showed him sweeping western Anbar, a stronghold for minority Sunnis whose long political dominance ended with Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003.

Allawi, a secular Shi’ite, also galvanized support among Sunni Arab voters in northern Nineveh, still gripped by a tenacious Sunni Islamist insurgency.

The early results represent more than 3 million votes of about 12 million cast. Final results are not expected for weeks.

Anxious politicians have criticized Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) for delaying results for days, heightening tension and drawing attention to charges of fraud.

Maliki, in an address to the National Security Council on national television, acknowledged that the March 7 vote had some problems but said that no election had “zero violations.”

“There was manipulation,” he said. “But it does not change the results.”

Allawi’s Iraqiya list has put forward a long list of complaints about fraud, including ballots found in the garbage and more than 200,000 soldiers who were unable to vote because their names did not appear on official rosters.

IHEC officials say almost 2,000 complaints were logged, far less than in provincial elections last year. The United Nations, which has been coaching IHEC before and after the vote, has downplayed the complaints.

Even before a complete national picture emerges, political maneuvering has already kicked into high gear. While Maliki may have fared well, no bloc is expected to win an outright majority and Maliki would likely be forced to ally with other groups.

Both Allawi and the INA have held meetings with minority Kurds, who may prove kingmakers of the day, and Arab politicians are reaching across party lines to explore possible alliances.

While it is too early to say who the ruling coalition may include, a strong showing for Maliki could weaken demands from resentful rivals that he be barred from a second term.

Abdul Hadi al-Hasani, a senior State of Law politician, said State of Law was considering alliance with Kurds and with the INA. Neither had it ruled out allying with Allawi, he said.

Allawi has been a fierce critic of Maliki, especially when the prime minister supported a ban of hundreds of candidates suspected of ties to Saddam’s Baath party, including a senior Sunni candidate on Allawi’s list.

Even such animosity may not be an obstacle to alliance in the hard-boiled politics that has characterized post-2003 Iraq.

Yahya al-Kubaisy, a researcher at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, warned that a government excluding Iraqiya risked further alienating Sunnis. “If this happens we must expect a return of violence to Iraq,” he said.

A list including two powerful Kurdish parties, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), are sure to try to extract concessions on the disputed oil city of Kirkuk, which they claim as their own.

The parties dominated Kurdish provinces, but they faced an unprecedented challenge from the reform-minded Goran group.

Khaled Suleiman, an analyst in northern Iraq, said that despite the new fissure in Kurdish politics, Kurdish parties would speak with a single voice in Baghdad, “especially on issues related to Kurdish destiny.”

The presidency may be another bargaining chip.

Kurds have reacted angrily to assertions from some Arab politicians, including Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, that Iraq’s next president should be an Arab.

They have again put forward Talabani, an elder statesmen and perhaps the most widely embraced Kurdish politician.

“We further believe that the people of Kurdistan, as a major component of Iraq, must be represented,” a statement from the office of the Kurdistan president said.


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