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Iraq: Largely Shi'a Bloc Must Now Find Allies To Form Ruling Coalition

Al-Sistani's Shi'ite bloc has emerged with a strong hand (file photo) A largely Shi'ite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, has won the most seats in the country's new National Assembly. But its victory in the 30 January elections appears to have left it with only a slim majority, meaning it now must find allies to form a viable ruling coalition. The challenge sets the stage for some lively political jockeying ahead.

Prague, 14 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi politicians are hailing the elections as a success in putting the country on the road to a functioning multiparty system of government.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters as the election results were announced yesterday that they proved there is political "competition" in the country.

"This is paradigm shift in the history of Iraq," al-Rubay'i said. "This is the first time ever in the history of this nation that the people of Iraq have voted freely and you can see there [is] competition. It is a free and fair and full election."

The election results show the United Iraqi Alliance, endorsed by preeminent Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, as winning some 48 percent of the vote to gain some 140 seats in the new 275-seat assembly. In second place is the united Kurdish bloc, with about 26 percent of the vote. Candidates allied with interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi took third place with 13.8 percent of the vote.
"This is paradigm shift in the history of Iraq." -- Ahmad al-Rikaby, director of Radio Dijla

The tally announced yesterday is still open to slight but probably not significant changes as the Independent Election Commission continues to examine some challenges to the vote count. The final confirmed election results are be announced in a few days.

Analysts said the challenge for the top three election winners now will be how to form sufficiently strong alliances to either make themselves the ruling party or part of an opposition bloc so powerful it cannot be ignored.

Some of the upcoming votes in the National Assembly will require the ruling party to muster two-thirds of the votes in the chamber. That is the case with the assembly's first major piece of business, electing a Presidency Council that includes a president and two deputies.

However, some other motions, including the vote of confidence to approve the prime minister-elect and cabinet, will require only a simple majority to pass.

The first move in the coalition building game now belongs to the victorious United Iraqi Alliance. It comprises a disparate group of candidates who are mostly drawn from Shi'ite religious parties, but it also includes members of secular Shi'ite parties and members of Iraq's minority Sunni and other communities.

The alliance must find a way to keep its existing group intact and reinforce it with as many additional seats in the assembly as possible.

Ahmad al-Rikaby is director of Radio Dijla, a talk-radio station in Baghdad on which listeners and public figures air their views. He told RFE/RL that one of the first groups the United Iraqi Alliance might court is the bloc of Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite politician.

Al-Rikaby said that third-place Allawi's importance as a potential coalition partner can be judged by the reception he received from the second-place Kurdish bloc last week. Kurdish political leaders accorded him honors usually reserved for the visiting head of another country.

"When Allawi visited, he was received by an honor guard and the reception was very, very similar to the receptions we see on Arabic television [stations] when a president is visiting a neighboring country," al-Rikaby said. "The way Allawi was received is a clear reflection of the Kurdish interest in bringing Allawi to their side. So, I think this example gives us a lot of indications about what is happening now in the Iraqi political arena."

The United Iraq Alliance could also court the Kurds. A key leader in the alliance -- Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) -- said earlier in February that "the alliance with the Kurds is known, it is continuing."

Al-Rikaby said that the United Iraqi Alliance also could try to build its strength by wooing some of the smaller parties that won a handful of seats in the assembly. These small parties range from the fourth-placed party of Iraq's Sunni interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir, to moderate Islamic splinter parties, to a Turkoman party.

Al-Rikaby said one thing that makes coalition building particularly fluid in Iraq is that most of the key parties and leaders -- including Allawi, the Kurds, SCIRI, and many others -- long worked together as exiled opponents to Saddam Hussein.

"All these groups which we see today, they were together as part of the Iraqi opposition," al-Rikaby said. "They dealt with each other for many years, they know each other very well. I think that what we will see in the future will be very much similar to what we have seen in the past. The relation was fluid, we have seen disagreements, however, despite everything, they never stopped dealing with each other."

As Iraq's election winners now engage in new rounds of coalition building to maximize their strength in the new assembly, major questions remain as to how to bring the formerly politically dominant Sunni community into the political process.

The election results indicate that most Sunni voters stayed home on 30 January amid security concerns and calls from some community leaders to boycott the poll as handing power to the Shi'ite majority.

Leading Iraqi politicians are signaling that they now want to include the Sunni in the National Assembly's main tasks even though the Sunnis themselves are underrepresented in the new body.

The National Assembly's main tasks are to choose the next interim government and to oversee the writing of the country's permanent constitution.

If the constitution is accepted, Iraq will go to a new round of elections for a national government in December.

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