By Leila Fadel
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A08
BAGHDAD -- The emerging results from last week's parliamentary elections have made clear that Iraq remains a dangerously polarized nation, with deep regional and sectarian schisms that could widen as the U.S. military draws down.
The race to become Iraq's next prime minister is so tight that it remains unclear who will come out ahead. The country is caught between two men: Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who became the candidate of choice for Sunni Arabs, and incumbent Nouri al-Maliki, an Islamist Shiite who has recast himself as a nationalist while still promising to serve the once-oppressed Shiite majority.
No matter which man's slate wins more seats, diplomats and Iraqi officials say the post-election jockeying to build a governing coalition could give rise to new conflicts in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south and the Sunni-dominated west, with the potential to unravel hard-won security gains.
With U.S. troop levels set to dip to about 50,000 by the end of the summer, the elections appear likely to give rise to an Iraq even more sharply divided than in the recent past, with Islamist Shiites trying to maintain their control in the government and Sunni Arabs hoping to assert a louder voice, albeit with a Shiite at the helm.
"Already the smell of sectarianism is flowing around again," Allawi said in an interview last week with The Washington Post.
Many Sunnis view Allawi, a former prime minister, as a potential benevolent dictator who could repair Iraq's tenuous relationship with Arab neighbors. Among ordinary Shiites, Maliki's popularity is such that he attracted more votes than any other parliamentary candidate.
But as a politician, Maliki has many enemies and few loyal friends, which could complicate the task of forming the new governing coalition he needs to stay on as prime minister. He broke with Iraq's largest Shiite political grouping to reinvent himself as a nationalist and now faces mistrust among many Shiites.
Maliki's biggest Shiite rivals are the followers of fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who have long walked a fine line between politics and violence. The Sadrists could become the dominant voice in the second-largest Shiite bloc in the parliament. This could make Maliki's attempt to form a new government painful both politically and possibly through violence in the streets.
With more than 80 percent of votes counted in Iraq, the regional and sectarian split has been stark.
Allawi holds leads in the four mostly Sunni provinces in the west and north, including a decisive lead in Anbar province, once the bastion of the Sunni insurgency. In those Sunni areas, Maliki has attracted little support. Allawi also is slightly ahead in the battleground province of Tamim, where Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens all claim the capital, Kirkuk.
But in Baghdad, the capital, Maliki is still leading, and he continues to lead in six of the nine southern provinces where Shiites hold a large majority, and where Allawi's slate is doing poorly.
Both Maliki and Allawi are trying to woo the Kurds and form a coalition that will ultimately appoint the president, who will then give the largest bloc in parliament the first chance to form a government and choose the prime minister. But for both men, the path is filled with obstacles.
If Maliki, a divisive figure whom many former allies describe as authoritarian and in some cases duplicitous, wins the plurality in parliament but proves unacceptable to most rival blocs, it would mean months of political maneuvering that could spill into the streets and spark bloodshed. In Iraq, violence has historically been the ultimate card in politics.
"Remember, the south challenged Saddam [Hussein] with all of his powers," Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top adviser to Maliki, said Wednesday, referring to the 1991 Shiite uprising. He spoke about concerns of fraud by rivals as the votes were being counted. "Our people are still suffering in the south, and they are patient for one reason: Their rights in Baghdad will be protected."
It is unclear whether Maliki would accept a defeat quietly and walk away. Top officials in his State of Law bloc warn that there will be "chaos" if election results are not transparent and that Maliki will stay in his position until every vote is manually recounted.
While Maliki has a cohesive political bloc, the resistance to him among other Shiite groups means that many may find it difficult to strike a deal that would leave him as prime minister. For now, Maliki's bloc has closed ranks around him, but its members may ultimately have to decide whether to stick with him if it means risking control of the government.
The Sadrists, projected to win 35 to 40 seats in the 325-seat parliament, have said in the past that they considered Maliki treacherous for his strike against them in 2008, when he went after their militia and arrested tens of men in the southern city of Basra. The militia was seen as a major player in much of the sectarian violence that paralyzed Iraq. Maliki is leading in oil-rich Basra province.
A Sadr movement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the group's resurgent power meant that Maliki and his party could no longer act alone. "They are not the majority," the official said. "If they want to have the title of prime minister, they have to listen to others, not put their conditions on others."
But an alliance between Sadrists and Allawi may prove just as difficult. The former prime minister has allied himself with Sunni Arabs whom most Shiites and Kurds would consider unacceptable. His party has also been the focus of a controversial commission, run by Shiite candidates, that purged tens of candidates belonging to his list for alleged loyalties to Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. The move galvanized Sunni voters, but it alienated some of Allawi's smaller, Shiite constituency.
Ultimately, Allawi's popularity as the man for Sunni Arabs in Iraq could be his undoing.
"It's more or less an unwritten dictum that this post for prime minister should be for the Shiites,'' said Ezzat Shahbandar, a Shiite lawmaker and member of Maliki's political bloc. "Although Allawi is a Shiite, he is a candidate from a Sunni electorate.
Correspondent Ernesto Londoño contributed to this report.