BAGHDAD, Feb. 13 -- A coalition dominated by Shiite Islamic parties and tacitly backed by the country's most influential religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, won the most votes in results released Sunday from Iraq's landmark elections, but fell short of a symbolically important majority that many of its leaders had projected.
The results, expected last week but delayed because of allegations of vote-tampering, were the culmination of Iraq's Jan. 30 vote for a 275-member parliament, the country's first democratic ballot in more than a half-century and one of the freest in the Arab world. The results represented one of the most sweeping statements of Iraq's shifting political terrain, as the country's long-repressed communities are set to assume power in the National Assembly, which will have to confront a durable, Sunni Arab-led insurgency, persistent power cuts, widespread joblessness and the task of drafting a constitution, among other challenges.
Video: Anthony Shadid on Election Results
"This is a birth for Iraq, a free Iraq," said Farid Ayar, the spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, which released the results at a news conference inside the fortified Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy and the interim Iraqi government.
According to the returns, which are considered preliminary until they are certified in three days, the largely Shiite coalition known as the United Iraqi Alliance won 48.2 percent of the vote, the low end of what its officials had predicted. A coalition of two major Kurdish parties won a surprising 25.7 percent of the vote, and a bloc led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi got 13.8 percent. Together, the three coalitions accounted for nearly 88 percent of the vote, making them the dominant players in a new parliament, which will choose a largely ceremonial president and two deputy presidents. They, in turn, will appoint a powerful prime minister, who will choose a cabinet.
Negotiations over who will fill those positions began long before ballots were even counted, but the proportion of votes each coalition won are crucial in determining the clout each grouping will carry into the talks. Many of the key decisions will require a two-thirds vote.
Given the backing of Sistani, whose writ carries the force of law among many devout Shiites, leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance had expected to win as much as 60 percent of the vote. Under a complicated formula for the allotment of seats, the alliance may still command a slim majority in parliament, but some of its officials said they were disappointed with their strong plurality. Some privately suggested that they suspected foul play and planned to question the commission on the specific results Monday.
"In fact, we were expecting a bigger number," said Humam Hamoudi, a candidate on the United Iraqi Alliance list and a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the central players in the coalition.
A representative of Allawi's bloc said that it, too, was disappointed by the results but that it remained in a position to act as a power broker. In that spirit, Allawi traveled last week to northern Iraq for talks with Kurdish leaders. With nearly a quarter of the vote, the Kurdish parties did better than expected, with representation in the assembly that may exceed the proportion of Kurds in Iraq's population.
As expected, Sunni Arab-led parties won just a fraction of the vote. The Association of Muslim Scholars and other influential Sunni groups had declared a boycott of the election, deeming it illegitimate as long as U.S. troops occupied Iraq, and many in Sunni-dominated provinces said they stayed home because of pervasive threats against candidates and voters.
A party led by Iraq's interim president, Ghazi Yawar, won less than 2 percent of the vote, although that was enough to assure his list a handful of seats. A prominent Sunni politician, Adnan Pachachi, did not win a seat, and it remained unclear whether other well-known Sunni figures, such as Mishan Jubouri, had sufficient votes to win a seat.
"The Association of Muslim Scholars is responsible for the catastrophic results," Jubouri said.
Turnout Shy of Expectations
The election commission said 8.55 million votes were cast; about 14.66 million people were registered to take part in the election. The 58 percent turnout fell short of the 60 percent that officials had predicted soon after the vote.
Across the country, the turnout reflected the country's cleavages. In the Kurdish north, virtually independent for 14 years and endowed with a functioning civil society, turnout ranged from 82 percent to 92 percent.
In the country's southern provinces, where Shiites represent an overwhelming majority, turnout was between 61 percent and 75 percent. The highest turnout was in the provinces of Najaf and Karbala, home to the two sacred Shiite cities where the clergy are most influential.