Iraq Election Results Will Pose New Challenges for U.S. Policy

Times Staff Writers

The apparent failure of secular, Western-oriented political groups to win many seats in Iraq’s four-year legislature puts new pressure on the Bush administration in its efforts to stabilize the country.

In Iraq, U.S. officials will have to intensify their efforts to contain ethnic and sectarian divisions that have deepened over the last year and, if allowed to fester, could push the country toward civil war. And as initial results indicate that the Iraqi government will be led by Shiite Muslims with ties to Iran, U.S. officials also may face pressure to establish their own direct working relationship with Tehran. Both tasks could prove crucial if the administration is to achieve its oft-stated goal of creating a stable, unified, democratic and peaceful country.

On Tuesday, as election officials in Baghdad released data suggesting that Shiite-led parties had won big, there were signs the Bush administration was already working to damp enmity over the results.


U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters at a news conference in the capital that he had conducted “preliminary discussions” with Iraqi leaders, urging them to reach across the sectarian and ethnic lines dividing Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.


Allawi Bloc Fares Poorly

The Bush administration had vocally supported electoral alliances that crossed such lines, including the one led by former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite. But all such groups did poorly.

Allawi’s Iraqi National List appears to have won only 21 seats, claiming 8% of the popular vote tallied so far, whereas the religious Shiite-based United Iraqi Alliance has apparently garnered 110 seats with an estimated 44% of the vote. Allawi and other groups are expected to pick up more seats in the 275-member parliament once expatriate votes are tallied.

A secular alliance headed by controversial Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a onetime Pentagon favorite to lead Iraq, scored less than 0.5% of the vote -- not enough to win a seat.

“It looks as if people have preferred to vote for their ethnic and sectarian identities,” Khalilzad said. “But for Iraq to succeed there has to be cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic cooperation.”

The strong draw of Iraq’s religious and ethnic-based parties, coupled with the poor showing of broader alliances, underscores a potential danger in the Bush administration’s stated plan to expand democracy across the Middle East: Elections can act to sharpen social divisions rather than heal them and to increase political instability rather than temper it.

Those with experience in elections in conflict zones said they were not surprised by the initial results in Iraq.

“Voters are not looking for creative, forward-looking candidates, they are looking for people who they think can protect them,” said James Dobbins, a foreign affairs specialist at the Rand Corp.'s Washington officewho has served in diplomatic posts, including in the Balkans, under several presidents. “They fall back on the familiar and the powerful. The same thing happened in postwar Bosnia, where the parties that fed the conflict in the first place got most of the vote.”

Dobbins noted that the last U.S. forces pulled out of Bosnia-Herzegovina nine years after they were deployed in 1995, and a European security force still remained in the country.

“We’re going to have to face the fact that there are strong centrifugal forces in Iraq that have the potential of tearing the country apart,” he added.

The tension among Iraq’s various groups was underscored Tuesday as rival parties traded accusations of vote fraud. The main Sunni Muslim Arab coalition, the National Accordance Front, alleged “flagrant forgery” in the Baghdad electoral district.

“Falsifying the will of the voters in such flagrant way will have serious reflections upon security and political stabilization, and will put the future of the political process in the wind,” the group said in a statement.

“We reject these results,” Adnan Dulaimi, a leader of the Sunni bloc, said before calling for a rerun of the Baghdad elections.

Allawi’s supporters, meanwhile, accused religious Shiites of ballot-rigging and intimidation. Ibrahim Janabi, an Allawi deputy, said armed and masked men roamed the capital’s Sadr City district on election day and threatened to kill anyone who voted for Allawi’s bloc.

In public Tuesday, senior U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington insisted that the results of the election were too preliminary to determine the precise shape of the new government.


Sunni Parties Lagging

But as vote-counting continued in Baghdad, it seemed increasingly clear that Shiite religious parties and groups representing ethnic Kurds’ interests would dominate the parliament, and Sunni-based parties appeared likely to win about 20% of the seats, below their expectations.

The United Iraqi Alliance, an amalgam of Shiite political parties that won the most seats in the interim parliament that was elected in January, appears to have won, with its reported 110 seats, nearly half of the 230 seats being allocated by province in the new assembly. Of the seats whose outcomes were being estimated, the Kurds followed with 43, and a Sunni Arab coalition with about 35. An additional 45 seats will be allocated nationally according to a complicated formula.

White House national security advisor Stephen Hadley emphasized the importance of bringing Sunnis into the government in a speech to a group of foreign affairs experts in Washington on Tuesday. He agreed that the administration must get “key neighboring and Arab states more involved in Iraq,” but was less certain how the U.S. planned to deal with Iran.


No Embassy Contact Yet

In Senate testimony two months ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the administration was considering direct contacts with Tehran as part of efforts to gain greater cooperation on Iraq. She indicated that such contact would be restricted to issues related to Iraq and would probably occur through the Baghdad embassies of the two countries.

On Tuesday, however, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said that so far, there had been no communication between the U.S. and Iranian embassies. The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran after Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and the two nations have had no regular contact since.

On Iraq, however, Iran and the United States have an overlapping interest in ensuring that the incoming Shiite-led government in Baghdad survives. Iran wields considerable influence among Shiite political parties in Iraq, and there are strong social and economic links between Shiite-dominated southern Iraq and Shiite-led Iran.

“We have to establish our own lines to Iran,” said Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East specialist at the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank.

“No matter what outrageous shenanigans are happening in Iran, what counts is that the Iranians are there in Iraq, using hard power, soft power and money, and they aren’t going away.”

Any resumption of direct contacts would be controversial, particularly given that the Bush administration believes Tehran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons and that Iran’s recently elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called for the annihilation or relocation of Israel.


Marshall reported from Washington and Daragahi from Baghdad.