Power Check: Verdict Is Split in Iraqi Election
By DEXTER FILKINS
Published: February 14, 2005
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BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 13 - The razor-thin margin apparently captured by the
Shiite alliance here in election results announced Sunday seems almost
certain to enshrine a weak government that will be unable to push through
sweeping changes, like granting Islam a central role in the new Iraqi state.
The verdict handed down by Iraqi voters in the Jan. 30 election appeared to
be a divided one, with the Shiite political alliance, backed by the clerical
leadership in Najaf, opposed in nearly equal measure by an array of mostly
secular minority parties.
According to Iraqi leaders here, the fractured mandate almost certainly
heralds a long round of negotiating, in which the Shiite alliance will have
to strike deals with parties run by the Kurds and others, most of which are
secular and broadly opposed to an enhanced role for Islam or an overbearing
The main responsibility of the Iraqi government over the next 10 months will
be the drafting of a permanent constitution, which must pass a vote of the
assembly and then be put to a vote of the people later this year. The role
of Islam is widely expected to be one of the most contentious issues.
The results of the balloting appeared to leave Kurdish leaders, whose party
captured more than a quarter of the assembly seats, in a particularly strong
position to shape the next government. The Kurds are America's closest
allies in Iraq, and most of their leaders are of a strong secular bent.
Among the demands that the Kurds and other groups will put to Shiite leaders
as the price for their cooperation will be an insistence on a more secular
state and concessions on Kirkuk, the ethnically divided city that Kurdish
leaders want to integrate into their regional government. Kurdish leaders
also say they will insist that the Iraqi president be a Kurd.
The prospect of a divided national assembly, split between religious and
secular parties, also appeared to signal a continuing role for the American
government, which already maintains 150,000 troops here, to help broker
As the final vote totals were being announced Sunday, Shiite leaders
appeared to be scaling back their expectations, and preparing to reach out
to parties in the opposition to help them form a new government.
"We have to compromise," said Adnan Ali, a senior leader in the Dawa party,
one of the largest in the Shiite coalition, called the United Iraqi
Alliance. "Even though we have a majority, we will need other groups to form
The vote tally, which appeared to leave the Shiite alliance with about 140
of the national assembly's 275 seats, fell short of what Shiite leaders had
been expecting, and seemed to blunt some of the triumphant talk that could
already be heard in some corners. The final results seemed to ease fears
among Iraq's Sunni, Kurd and Christian minorities that the leadership of the
Shiite majority might feel free to ignore minority concerns, and possibly
fall under the sway of powerful clerics, some of whom advocate the
establishment of a strict Islamic state.
As a result, some Iraqi leaders predicted Sunday that the Shiite alliance
would try to form a "national unity government," containing Kurdish and
Sunni leaders, as well as secular Shiites, possibly including the current
prime minister, Ayad Allawi. Such a leadership would all but ensure that no
decisions would be taken without a broad national consensus.
One senior Iraqi official, a non-Shiite who spoke on the condition of
anonymity, said the slim majority won by the Shiite alliance signaled even
greater obstacles for the Shiite parties in the future. If the Sunni Arabs,
who largely boycotted the election, decide to take part in the future, they
would almost certainly dilute the Shiite alliance's already thin margin.
"This is the height of the Shiite vote," the Iraqi official said. "The next
election assumes Sunni participation, and you will see an entirely different
The main factor ensuring a relatively cautious Shiite majority is the
complicated mechanism controlling the formation of the government. Under the
rules, the prime minister will be selected by a president and two deputies,
who must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the assembly. Practically
speaking, that means the prime minister will have to be approved by a
two-thirds vote. The Shiite alliance has nowhere near that many seats.
Iraqi leaders who are not part of the Shiite alliance say that in exchange
for their support for a Shiite prime minister, they could set strict
conditions on several key issues, like the role of religion in the
constitution and the power of regional governments.
Under the interim constitution agreed upon last year, Islam is one of many
sources of legislation, not the only source, as was advocated by some Shiite
Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister and a prominent Kurdish leader,
reiterated his group's support for a limited role for Islam in the new
constitution and broad powers for the Kurds to run their own affairs. He
also said the Kurds would insist that Shiite leaders agree to a Kurdish
president, probably Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of
Kurdistan, one of the main Kurdish political parties in the north.
The selection of a Kurdish president would most likely inflame the Sunnis in
Iraq as well as nearly all other governments in the Arab world, which are
dominated by Sunnis.
"If Talabani were rejected merely because of his ethnicity, then this would
be relegating Kurds to the status of second-class citizens," Mr. Salih said.
"And this is something that we would not accept."
Indeed, the stage seemed set for several days of intensive negotiations to
determine the shape of the next government. With that in mind, Iraq's Shiite
leaders sounded a conciliatory tone.
"This is a stage in Iraqi history when everyone must participate," said
Haitham al-Husseini, a leader of the Shiite alliance. "We don't want to be
the dominating power in the country."