When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq two years ago, it envisioned a quick handover to handpicked allies in a secular government that would be the antithesis of Iran's theocracy -- potentially even a foil to Tehran's regional ambitions.
But, in one of the greatest ironies of the U.S. intervention, Iraqis instead went to the polls and elected a government with a strong religious base -- and very close ties to the Islamic republic next door. It is the last thing the administration expected from its costly Iraq policy -- $300 billion and counting, U.S. and regional analysts say.
Yesterday, the White House heralded the election and credited the U.S. role. In a statement, President Bush praised Iraqis "for defying terrorist threats and setting their country on the path of democracy and freedom. And I congratulate every candidate who stood for election and those who will take office once the results are certified."
Yet the top two winning parties -- which together won more than 70 percent of the vote and are expected to name Iraq's new prime minister and president -- are Iran's closest allies in Iraq.
Thousands of members of the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite-dominated slate that won almost half of the 8.5 million votes and will name the prime minister, spent decades in exile in Iran. Most of the militia members in its largest faction were trained in Shiite-dominated Iran.
And the winning Kurdish alliance, whose co-leader Jalal Talabani is the top nominee for president, has roots in a province abutting Iran, which long served as its economic and political lifeline.
"This is a government that will have very good relations with Iran. The Kurdish victory reinforces this conclusion. Talabani is very close to Tehran," said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan expert on Iraq. "In terms of regional geopolitics, this is not the outcome that the United States was hoping for."
Added Rami Khouri, Arab analyst and editor of Beirut's Daily Star: "The idea that the United States would get a quick, stable, prosperous, pro-American and pro-Israel Iraq has not happened. Most of the neoconservative assumptions about what would happen have proven false."
The results have long-term implications. For decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations played Baghdad and Tehran off each other to ensure neither became a regional giant threatening or dominant over U.S. allies, notably Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf sheikdoms.
But now, Cole said, Iraq and Iran are likely to take similar positions on many issues, from oil prices to U.S. policy on Iran. "If the United States had decided three years ago to bomb Iran, it would have produced joy in Baghdad," he added. "Now it might produce strong protests from Baghdad."
Conversely, the Iraqi secular democrats backed most strongly by the Bush administration lost big. During his State of the Union address last year, Bush invited Adnan Pachachi, a longtime Sunni politician and then-president of the Iraqi Governing Council, to sit with first lady Laura Bush. Pachachi's party fared so poorly in the election that it won no seats in the national assembly.
And current Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, backed by the CIA during his years in exile and handpicked by U.S. and U.N. officials to lead the interim government, came in third. He addressed a joint session of Congress in September, a rare honor reserved for heads of state of the closest U.S. allies. But now, U.S. hopes that Allawi will tally enough votes to vie as a compromise candidate and continue his leadership are unrealistic, analysts say.
"The big losers in this election are the liberals," said Stanford University's Larry Diamond, who was an adviser to the U.S. occupation government. "The fact that three-quarters of the national assembly seats have gone to just two [out of 111] slates is a worrisome trend. Unless the ruling coalition reaches out to broaden itself to include all groups, the insurgency will continue -- and may gain ground."
Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is a leading contender to be prime minister, reiterated yesterday that the new government does not want to emulate Iran. "We don't want either a Shiite government or an Islamic government," he said on CNN's "Late Edition." "Now we are working for a democratic government. This is our choice."
And a senior State Department official said yesterday that the 48 percent vote won by the Shiite slate deprives it of an outright majority. "If it had been higher, the slate would be seen with a lot more trepidation," he said on the condition of anonymity because of department rules.
U.S. and regional analysts agree that Iraq is not likely to become an Iranian surrogate. Iraq's Arabs and Iran's Persians have a long and rocky history. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Iraq's Shiite troops did not defect to Iran.
"There's the assumption that the new government will be close to Iran or influenced by Iran. That's a strong and reasonable assumption," Khouri said. "But I don't think anyone knows -- including Grand Ayatollah [Ali] Sistani -- where the fault line is between Shiite religious identity and Iraqi national identity."
Iranian-born Sistani is now Iraq's top cleric -- and the leader who pressed for elections when Washington favored a caucus system to pick a government. His aides have also rejected Iran's theocracy as a model, although the Shiite slate is expected to press for Islamic law to be incorporated in the new constitution.
For now, the United States appears prepared to accept the results -- in large part because it has no choice.
But the results were announced at a time when the United States faces mounting tensions with Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions, support for extremism and human rights violations. On her first trip abroad this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran's behavior was "something to be loathed" and charged that the "unelected mullahs" are not good for Iran or the region.
One of the biggest questions, analysts say, is whether Iraq's democratic election will make it easier -- or harder -- to pressure Iran.