By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; A10
BAGHDAD -- The leaders whose slates won the most votes in Iraq's disputed parliamentary elections should set aside personal ambition and contemplate accepting positions other than the premiership, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East said Tuesday.
"Iraqi leaders now are spending a lot of time debating who gets to go first trying to form a government," Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman said in an interview. "I would argue it's more important to be talking about what the programs of the new government are going to be."
Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi, leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya faction, both claim the right to form the next government, citing conflicting interpretations of the constitution. Iraqiya won the most seats, 91, besting Maliki's State of Law coalition by two. Maliki has reached a tentative deal with a rival Shiite bloc that he contends entitles the alliance to form a government.
The dispute is worrisome to U.S. officials because the stalemate could drag on for months, potentially paralyzing government functions and raising political tension as the U.S. troop drawdown accelerates.
A government led by Maliki or another member of the Shiite alliance is likely to leave many Sunnis feeling disenfranchised. An Allawi government, which is seen as a more remote possibility, could lead to the reactivation of Shiite militias that in the past have served as armed wings of political parties.
"In the end, there's going to be one prime minister," Feltman said during a visit to Baghdad. "People who may feel that they are the legitimate candidate for prime minister are going to have to start thinking of their Plan B."
The United States hailed the March elections as the most credible in the history of the Arab world. But U.S. officials are troubled by a recent spike in violence and the intransigence of Iraqi political leaders.
The certification of election results was delayed by a manual recount of votes in Baghdad carried out at Maliki's request and the attempted disqualification of nine candidates -- most of them Sunni or secular -- by a commission run by Shiite politicians.
In the end, neither effort changed the seat distribution in the incoming parliament, but the political maneuvering has cast a pall on the legitimacy of the vote.
Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, criticized Maliki in a speech Saturday, saying he was trying to "hijack the results of the elections and deny the Iraqi people their legitimately elected government."
Saudi Arabia is among the region's Sunni states that worry about the emergence of an Iraq ruled by Shiite politicians with close ties to Iran.
Maliki has rejected such criticism, saying he is committed to forming a government in which no segment is excluded.
Falah al-Naqib, an Iraqiya candidate who won a seat in parliament, said Sunnis will be deeply disappointed if Allawi is not the next prime minister.
"Most Iraqis want to see a nonsectarian leader like Dr. Allawi," he said.