Secular bloc wins most seats in Iraq


A secular rival edged Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite alliance in final election results announced Friday, but instead of deciding who will govern Iraq as tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers head home, the virtual dead heat set up a test of raw power in the courts, in parliament and on the streets.

Despite declarations from U.S. and United Nations officials that the elections had been fair, Maliki said he would go to court to demand a manual recount in parts of Baghdad and northern Iraq. His State of Law alliance, which won 89 seats, also pledged to bar some members of the rival Iraqiya list from parliament who were accused of having been members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

Final results gave Iraqiya, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, 91 seats in the 325-member parliament.

“These votes belong to the people,” Maliki said. “We have our suspicions. Let us recheck so there will be a peaceful exchange of power.”

Even before the final results were announced, some Maliki supporters had lashed out at the electoral commission and accused the CIA and State Department of planning to topple Maliki in favor of Allawi. Candidates in Maliki’s coalition spoke darkly of the provinces in the Shiite-dominated south loosening their ties to Baghdad if Allawi were to become prime minister. Maliki’s coalition sponsored protests in Baghdad and the south, where crowds, shouting slogans against the Baath Party, demanded a recount.

The charges of electoral fraud drew strong rebukes from the U.N.’s special representative in Iraq, Ad Melkert. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and the U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray T. Odierno, issued a joint statement saying the elections were fair and demanding that parties stop casting doubt on the results.

“We encourage all political entities to conduct talks on the formation of the new government in a spirit of cooperation and respect for the will of the voters, and to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric or action,” it said.

As the results were being announced, a double bombing in a popular outdoor market killed 42 people and wounded 65 others in Khalis in Diyala province, a reminder of Iraq’s persistent violence.

In Baghdad, the struggle for power has now broken down largely along traditional lines of division between Iraq’s Shiite majority and Sunni Arab minority, which had prospered under Hussein. Maliki, who broke away from the main Shiite-led coalition last summer, has now gone back to courting onetime allies. And he appears to have given up on the idea of transcending sectarian politics.

During his nearly four years as prime minister, Maliki alienated many Shiite rivals. But whether with him or another candidate, ethnic Kurds and Shiites appear intent on finding a way to form the next government.

Such an alliance of Shiite parties and Kurds, with an addition of a few smaller Sunni groups, would be virtually identical to the coalition that has governed Iraq since the first post-Hussein election in 2005 and that presided over the country’s descent into civil war.

Allawi’s alliance comprises secular Sunnis and Shiites. Many fear that it merely serves as a front for the return of the Sunni Arab-dominated Baath Party, which repressed Kurds and Shiites.

A senior Iraqiya member acknowledged that Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as prime minister in 2004-2005, would not be able to form a coalition government unless he could offer firm guarantees to the Kurds and Maliki’s Shiite competitors that he would share power and place real limits on political figures they oppose. Iraqiya has already begun talks with the largely Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, which won 70 seats. Kurdish parties won 57 seats.

Iraqiya’s prospects pivot on whether Maliki’s behavior has so alienated other Shiites and the Kurds that they would be willing to strike a bargain with it, and whether Allawi can convince them to share power with Sunni figures such as Vice President Tariq Hashimi and lawmaker Usama Nujaifi, who are seen as hostile to Shiite and Kurdish interests, the Iraqiya official said.

The power struggle will play out as U.S. troops accelerate their departure. By the end of August, the number should be down to 50,000 from the current 95,000. At their peak, there were 168,000 U.S. troops in the country.

The fluidity of the situation has raised concerns that political battles will spill into the streets to be settled by force -- including assassinations.

Before the election, Maliki assigned army generals loyal to him to the main divisions around Baghdad and sent others to the south, according to Iraqi politicians and a Defense Ministry memo obtained by The Times.

Officers also were purged from the Interior Ministry prior to the election. According to an Iraqi close to the ministry and a Western official, 191 officers were recently removed on allegations that they had once belonged to the Baath Party. The decree is still waiting to be enforced, but it could lead to the sacking of more than 70 police generals and colonels, raising fears that Maliki and other Shiite parties are trying to stock the security ministries with their supporters.

An intelligence operative who works with political parties in Baghdad predicted local politicians would be targeted for assassination in the weeks ahead. He acknowledged that he had already started surveying targets, in case his side was attacked.

Aware of the protracted bargaining they were facing, all sides sought to present themselves as the winner.

In mainly Sunni Arab parts of Baghdad, people celebrated Allawi’s showing. Thousands partied in the streets, playing music, handing out sweets and firing shots in the air.

Maliki’s supporters said they were already on the way to forming coalitions, including with the Kurds. The prime minister has had a contentious relationship with them in the last two years over the future of territories in northern Iraq that the Kurds wish to incorporate in their semiautonomous region.

Aware of talk that Maliki could be sacrificed to ensure Shiites remain in power, his spokesman Ali Dabbagh emphasized that the prime minister’s list was firmly behind him. “No one can veto Prime Minister Maliki,” he said. “Maliki is the leading personality in the State of Law.”

Allawi’s supporters also sought to present themselves as the winners. Their slate had used Allawi’s secular image to pick up a few seats in Shiite provinces, unlike Maliki’s backers who failed to elect any candidates in Sunni provinces.

“Today, according to the results, Iraqiya will form the government,” said Rafae Issawi, a deputy prime minister and Iraqiya member.

Ahmed is a Times staff writer. Times staff writer Raheem Salman contributed to this report.