They are the orphans of Iraqi history, grown up and remaking the country's political and social order. But the formidable alliance between the long-marginalized Shiite Muslims and Kurds, a union nurtured by Washington, now threatens to undermine U.S. goals in the new Iraq.
The aim of U.S. policymakers has been a united Iraqi state with secular leanings in which the Kurds, who have been strong American allies, would promote a government aligned with the West. Instead, the Kurds appear poised to accept alliances that guarantee them a secular state in Kurdistan in exchange for their acceptance of a more religious order in the rest of Iraq.
"This was one of the great flaws in the American strategy," said a former diplomat who is close to the Kurds. "They thought that because the Kurds are American allies that they would share their vision of Iraq as a whole, whereas anybody who understood it would see [that] the Kurds wanted out of Iraq and to be left alone."
Although the Shiite-Kurd alliance is replete with ideological contradictions and conflicting aims, they are held together by mutual interests -- and the power that comes with dominating contemporary Iraq's political structure. Together, the two won 181 seats in the new parliament: 128 for the Shiites and 53 for the Kurds. The total, however, rises to more than 184 if two smaller parities, one Kurdish and one Shiite, are counted -- giving them the two-thirds majority needed to form a government.
The new lineup, which will rule for the next four years, offers other challenges to the U.S. goal of keeping Iraq united. Negotiations are underway to choose a prime minister and form the government, a process expected to take at least six weeks. U.S. officials are involved in the discussions and strongly urging the Shiites and Kurds to give Sunni Muslim Arabs a share of power.
But neither the Shiites nor the Kurds trust the Sunnis enough to want to make them real players in the new government, diplomats say, and it is unlikely they will get any key ministries, especially those controlling the security services.
But without Sunnis in powerful positions in security, it is unlikely that the new government will be able to stem the insurgency.
"There isn't going to be any deal between the insurgents and Bayan Jabr," a Western diplomat in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of Iraq's controversial interior minister, a Shiite.
Both Shiites and Kurds defend their right, guaranteed in the constitution, to maintain local defense forces for semiautonomous regions, such as Kurdistan, or the Shiite-dominated provinces in the south. But it is only a matter of time before Sunnis create a defense force for western Iraq.
"When it comes to saying where the border is between one region and another, what happens if the Sunnis send their defense forces and the Shiites send theirs?" asked a Western diplomat in Baghdad.
Some analysts still say the Kurdish-Shiite partnership could break, forcing a new configuration of Iraqi politics more palatable to American interests. "The devil is in the details," one Western official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official noted that it had taken almost three months to form a transitional government last year, and that was to last just nine months. "This will be much harder," the official said.
The alliance of Shiites and Kurds has its roots in Iraqi history and in a shared antipathy for longtime dictator Saddam Hussein. But the partnership thrived more recently because of shared interests: Each wants to be free to run the part of country where its group is dominant.
Abdelaziz Hakim, the Shiite ayatollah who leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, stands for the kind of religious state that makes the generally secular Kurds uncomfortable. But the Kurdish parliament welcomed him in December for a speech that appeared calculated to cement ties between the groups.
"We have struggled together to topple the regime of dictatorship and sectarianism and to ensure that our Iraq remains safe and free," Hakim told the Kurdish legislators in the northern city of Irbil, to what witnesses described as thunderous applause. "The religious authorities have always defended Iraqis."
Hakim was evoking the powerful memory of his father, the Grand Ayatollah Sayed Muhsin Hakim. In 1963, when Iraq's newly ascendant Sunni Arab nationalists were consolidating their power and intensifying a campaign against autonomy-seeking Kurds, the elder Hakim issued an unprecedented fatwa that forbade Shiites in the army from killing Kurds.
"The faithful were forced to make a decision," said Mohammed Hadi Asadi, head of the Horizons Center for Iraqi Studies and Research, a government-funded institute close to Hakim's camp. "They could either desert the army or fire their weapons into the air."
Sporadic contact continued throughout the 1970s, but the collaboration really took root in the 1980s, when the Shiites and Kurds fleeing Hussein set up camp in neighboring Iran, then at war with Iraq, and began plotting against the dictator.
The younger Hakim, then a leader of the Badr Brigade militia, was among the first to visit the Kurdish village of Halabja after Hussein sprayed the town with chemical weapons in 1988, killing up to 5,000 people. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. established a semiautonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, and Hakim's militia set up bases there
The two communities share an interest in creating a federal system with a weak center. "The Kurds basically had two ways to go: They could go with ... the seculars or they could go with the Shiite route," said the former diplomat who is close to the Kurds. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani "took the position that their interests were more aligned with the Shiite religious groups."
Although Shiites are hardly uniform in their political views, they appear ready to put aside their differences, at least temporarily, in order to exercise power. With that in mind, firebrand cleric Muqtada Sadr, who despises the vision of a federal Iraq, has thrown in his lot with the new order, bolstering the Shiite bargaining position and numbers in parliament.
U.S. officials had privately hoped the Sadr camp would break away from moderate Islamists such as Hakim, and thereby diminish the size of the main Shiite slate, the United Iraqi Alliance.
In contrast to the warm ties between the house of Hakim and the Kurds, Sadr and his followers have had stormy relations with other Shiite parties, accusing them of betraying the elder Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, whose assassination is widely believed to have been carried out by Hussein's security forces.
But the younger Sadr was coaxed into the larger Shiite fold in part because of the lure of being in the government and controlling job-rich ministries, such as health and transportation.
"They found new opportunities in the government and made good accomplishments in Iraqi society," said Humam Hamoodi, a Shiite lawmaker. "Being near authority made them more practical in their political tastes. Once you get a taste of power, it's hard to let it go."
But with Sadr and the Kurds onboard, it is far from clear what will be left for Sunnis.
A big concern will be how to accommodate the Sunni Arabs of the Iraqi Accordance Front, led by the Iraqi Islamic Party, that won 44 seats in the new parliament. The party's ties to the Hakim clan go back to 1958, when the Communist-leaning Arab nationalist government cracked down on Islamists. The elder Hakim, who died in 1970, gave Sunnis sanctuary in Najaf.
Whereas Sunni Arabs generally accepted Hussein's rule -- which favored them -- Islamists such as the Iraqi Islamic Party and Adnan Dulaimi, former head of the Sunni Waqf endowment, generally resisted, refusing to praise the president or his secular government during sermons and willing to risk jail for their beliefs.
"Dulaimi, in particular, has a very honorable history when it comes to the Saddam rule," said one Iraqi official close to the Shiites. "These people don't have blood on their hands."
Power-sharing is another matter, however. Officials close to the Shiite parties were at a loss to name a single ministry post they could give to a Sunni because all are already spoken for by factions within their own slate or by Kurds.
Not surprisingly, that is unlikely to satisfy the group that ruled Iraq for the last 80 years.