Interfere, no, but U.S. should be monitoring Iraqi deliberations

Saturday, March 13, 2010; A14

ELECTION DAY in Iraq last Sunday started out violently but ended well, with a turnout that exceeded that of last year's local elections -- not to mention most U.S. presidential votes. Since then, the counting has been slow and messy, with loud but so far unsubstantiated charges of fraud. The preliminary results show a close race between the mainly Shiite coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a second Shiite alliance and a nationalist and secular ticket that received heavy support in Sunni areas.

In other words, Iraq's critical political transition is so far going as well as could be expected, both for the country and for the Obama administration. The very uncertainty of the outcome is shaming the regimes of all the other Arab states, which have never held such competitive elections. If the fierce competition among rival blocs can be confined to the vote count and the negotiations to form a new ruling coalition -- and does not escalate into sectarian violence -- Iraq will cross a major threshold.

There is, however, a long way to go. The slow vote count is one cause for concern, though U.N. officials say it has been caused partly by controls intended to prevent fraud. As of Friday partial results had been announced for only seven of Iraq's 18 provinces -- excluding Baghdad, where a fifth of the country lives. The apparent closeness of the vote, so far, could also complicate the formation of a government, which will require two or three of the leading blocs to join together.

So far, however, it looks as though Mr. Maliki and nationalist leader Ayad Allawi, who briefly served as prime minister in 2004-05, have better chances of leading the new government than do the candidates closest to Iran. Encouragingly, Mr. Allawi's fortunes appear not to have been affected greatly by an attempt by Tehran's allies to sabotage his ticket by disqualifying a number of its candidates immediately before the election.

A government headed by either Mr. Maliki or Mr. Allawi would offer the Obama administration an opportunity to forge a vital strategic relationship with Iraq even as U.S. troops depart in the next two years. Mr. Maliki signed a strategic framework with the Bush administration and has already demonstrated his capacity to resist Iranian influence. Mr. Allawi is even more interested in an alliance with Washington and has good relations with Arab Sunni governments that have shunned Mr. Maliki's administration.

Obama administration officials have been saying that they cannot and will not intervene in the complex political negotiations that will now begin. No doubt Iran will not be so scrupulous. In any case, the United States will have a critical role to play -- helping Iraqi forces to maintain security as the talks proceed and urging all sides to remain in the political system. The outcome of a war that has cost 4,000 American lives could be decided inside the smoke-filled rooms of Baghdad in the coming weeks or months. The administration must be careful, deferential to Iraqi democracy -- but not passive.

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