By Leila Fadel and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 27, 2010; A01
BAGHDAD -- Nearly three weeks after Iraq's elections, the coalition of former prime minister Ayad Allawi emerged with the most seats in the parliament Friday but fell far short of a majority. The results signaled the start of another protracted phase of uncertainty for this country's fledgling political system.
Allawi's coalition won two seats more than that of his fiercest competitor, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki refused to recognize the results and said he would challenge them in court.
Even if Maliki's challenges fail, it will probably take several months for a new government to form. Allawi's Iraqiya list secured 91 seats and Maliki's State of Law won 89. With 163 seats needed for a parliamentary majority, both blocs will soon be engaged in horse-trading and coalition-building.
"Our arms and our hearts are open toward all the political powers," Allawi said in an interview with an Arabic-language television channel.
Allawi, a secular Shiite, drew his support from millions of Sunni Arabs, who cast ballots March 7 hoping for an end to their marginalization by the Shiite-led government. Allawi, who served as the U.S.-appointed prime minister from 2004 to 2005, is considered less sectarian than other Shiite leaders and was not in power during the vicious sectarian bloodletting that marked the first two years of Maliki's tenure.
On Friday, in Sunni and mixed neighborhoods across the capital, where Allawi was most popular, residents fired bullets into the air in celebration.
"We didn't dream this day would come," said Hamid Ibadi, an intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government who was drinking with friends in the Sunni Adhamiyah district.
Iraqis have witnessed five changes of government since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. An estimated 12 million Iraqis voted for the next parliament, which will constitute the last transition of power before the U.S. military leaves in 2011, in accordance with a security agreement between Iraq and the United States.
Although Maliki called for calm and stressed that any transition of power would be peaceful, many Iraqis fear that the political battles could spill into the streets and that the violence could destabilize their fragile nation. Earlier Friday, a pair of bombings killed at least 32 people and wounded 68 in Khalis, a town north of Baghdad.
"Today, the bombs did not differentiate between Sunnis and Shiites, and the dead were from all sects and groups," said Hadi Saeed, 34, who was wounded when his shop collapsed around him.
In Washington, the Obama administration was restrained in its reaction to the vote outcome, congratulating "the Iraqi government, candidates and coalitions" and the electoral commission "for carrying out a successful election" and calling for a peaceful resolution of all disputes. Statements by the U.S. Embassy and military command in Iraq and by the State Department emphasized the need for "all political entities to pursue any complaints or appeals through established legal mechanisms and processes."
As they have throughout the electoral process, Obama administration officials said they are not backing any particular candidate or bloc. "I think we'll be happy if Iraqis go through this in a constitutional way, a legal way, and come up with a government seen as inclusive and ready to take on the main challenges there," one official said.
In Tikrit, the home town of Hussein, the late dictator, residents flooded the streets, joined by policemen who abandoned their posts to be part of the celebrations. Men and women cruised the streets, honking horns and waving the Iraqi flag.
"We want to be proud of being Iraqis when we travel outside Iraq and not be asked if you are Shiite or Sunni. This is a blow to those who think in terms of sect," said Mohammed Hassan, 23, a university student in Tikrit.
The revelry stood in stark contrast to scenes in Iraq's Shiite south. Many working-class Shiites fear that Allawi will allow Hussein's banned Baath Party to return, despite Allawi's years of opposition to the dictator.
"We hope Allawi will form a nonsectarian, non-Baathist government," said Alaa Dhalimi, 29, in the city of Najaf. "We suffered for 35 years under the Baathist hegemony, and we expect Allawi to keep them away and not have them on our necks again."
The Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite coalition, won 70 seats in the 325-seat parliament, according to Friday's results, and Kurdish political blocs collectively won 57 seats. One of the main Kurdish groups, the Kurdistan Alliance, received 43 seats, after losing some ground to the breakaway Change movement. The Kurdish blocs also suffered because of high Sunni Arab turnout in mixed areas. The Kurds, after enjoying the status of kingmaker in the current government, will see their power wane in the next parliament.
Seat-by-seat results, to be announced Saturday, will indicate the breakdown within the alliances. In seeking to build a broader coalition, Allawi could struggle to find partners among Shiite and Kurdish alliances, which fear that he is too close to former elements of the Hussein government. Maliki's Shiite-dominated bloc is more acceptable to Shiite allies and neighboring Iran.
U.N. and U.S. officials have said that there were no signs of widespread fraud. "These elections have been credible, and we congratulate the people of Iraq with this success," said Ad Melkert, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq. "No election in the world is perfect. There were imperfections and, at some places, serious issues."
Based on the results, one U.S. official said, there was no indication that the U.S. military withdrawal would be delayed. Troop levels are scheduled to drop from about 95,000 to 50,000 by the end of August.
"When one looks at the challenges that this country has gone through, you can take some heart from the fact that people seem to manage to survive these challenges, to get through them," Christopher R. Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in an interview this week. "We try to deal with things in a calm way, with the understanding that this is monumental and emotions are high."
DeYoung reported from Washington. Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Aziz Alwan and Jinan Hussein in Baghdad, Hassan Shammari in Diyala province, Uthman al-Mokhtar in Fallujah and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.