By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 28, 2010; A10
BAGHDAD -- Former prime minister Ayad Allawi began reaching out to other political blocs Saturday for allies he needs to form Iraq's next government, while accusing his main rival, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of maneuvering to undercut his victory in the March 7 parliamentary elections.
Allawi, whose Iraqiya list bested Maliki's State of Law coalition by two seats, 91 to 89, in results announced Friday, faces the greater challenge in putting together a majority. A secular Shiite who won by attracting Sunni Arab and secular voters, Allawi will have to woo other Shiite politicians -- some of whom view Maliki as a more palatable, albeit imperfect, option -- as well as Kurds.
He will also almost certainly have to make overtures to predominantly Shiite Iran, which is more influential in Iraqi politics than the United States.
Allawi appealed for national unity Saturday, saying in a news conference at his party's headquarters, "The time has come to start building the country and laying the grounds for stability and economic development."
Maliki is making the same appeal, even as he refuses to recognize the electoral results and calls for a recount. Iraqiya officials expressed concern Saturday that Maliki will use his position as head of a caretaker government during the appeals process and months of political jockeying to try to reduce the number of seats won by Allawi's bloc. Dozens of candidates were purged before the elections for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party, with Allawi's bloc losing the most people. A second round of 55 disqualifications, announced on the eve of the vote, could erode Iraqiya's slim margin if the candidates lose their appeals.
In a TV interview Saturday, Allawi also alleged that members of his group had been detained.
"I think [Maliki will] use every means at his disposal, as he made pretty clear he would," said Gary Grappo, chief of the U.S. Embassy's political section. "But he also made clear in his [post-election] statement that he would work within the constitution and within the rule of law. We will take him at his word."
Maliki appears to have begun using the legal system to block Allawi's rise. On Thursday, Iraq's supreme court interpreted an ambiguous clause in the constitution as saying that the largest bloc in parliament, with the right to form the next government, could be two or more groups that merged after the election. The opinion could allow Maliki's State of Law and a rival Shiite bloc to claim the right to form a government first.
Allawi disputed the court's interpretation during the TV interview Saturday.
The Obama administration's mantra throughout the electoral process was that it had no preference among the candidates and was concerned only that disputes be resolved without violence, within Iraq's legal structure. "It will be important for all sides to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric and intimidation," the State Department said Friday. "It also is important that the Iraqi government continue to provide security and other essential services for its citizens during this period leading to the formation of a government."
U.S. officials have insisted that they will not change plans to withdraw this summer nearly half of the 95,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. "We don't expect it to cut into the withdrawal schedule at this point in time," Grappo said of the bickering and potential delay.
If Maliki prevails in forming a new government and shutting Allawi out, he is likely to enrage Sunni Arabs who came to see Allawi as their best shot at regaining power.
Early Saturday, Allawi's party headquarters in the holy city of Karbala, in southern Iraq, was burned to the ground. Police blamed the fire on shoddy electrical wiring. But Iraqiya members said it was evidence of intimidation by political rivals.
"We didn't think they would go down to this level," said Hussam Ali al-Maamachi, a member of Iraqiya in Karbala, where the bloc won one seat.
Although U.S. officials have hailed the elections as an example of nonsectarianism to be emulated throughout the region, the Iraqi campaign and vote have been closely watched by neighboring governments seeking influence. Even as senior Iraqi political figures traveled to Shiite Iran for what Iraqi officials said were probably consultations on the formation of a new government, Sunni-dominated countries such as Saudi Arabia were describing Allawi's narrow victory as a possible curb on Iranian influence in the region. A banner headline in Asharq al-Awsat, an influential Saudi newspaper, read, "The Awakening of Moderation in Iraq," the Associated Press reported.
But whatever the outcome in Iraq, the country's political map could end up changing very little. Although officials from the Kurdistan Alliance, which won 43 seats, and the Shiite Iraqi National Alliance, which won 70 seats, said they were open to negotiations with any group, they privately acknowledged that an alliance with Maliki's bloc was the most logical fit -- provided someone else was appointed prime minister.
The current government is led by Shiites who are aligned, at times uncomfortably, with Kurds. A handful of Sunnis hold key jobs, but many Sunni Arabs say they feel disenfranchised and blame Maliki for standing idle as Sunnis were slaughtered and exiled at the height of Iraq's sectarian war in 2006 and 2007.
"What the Iraqi National Alliance wants is to remove Maliki," said Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, a political analyst in Baghdad. "If that happens, power would remain in the hands of the Shiites, and this would win the support of the rank and file of the Shiite population. The most likely outcome is more of the same."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.