Iraq's Election: Can This Deadlock Be Broken?

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Muhannad Fala'ah / Getty Images

In Baghdad, supporters of Iyad Allawi celebrate after the media called him the victor of Iraq's election

After an election that failed to produce a clear winner, Iraq's political leaders are squaring up for a fight that could have dire consequences for the country's security situation. Last week's media reports hailing Iyad Allawi as the election victor were a little premature: the former U.S.-installed Prime Minister's secular nationalist slate may have finished narrowly ahead of its nearest rival, but its share of the vote translates into only 91 seats in the 325-seat legislature, where 163 seats is the magic number needed to form a government. And while Allawi's first-place finish in the poll theoretically puts him in the pole position to build a coalition government, the odds against him achieving that are substantial, and incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is hard at work ensuring that Allawi doesn't even get the opportunity to try.

Al-Maliki has refused to accept the poll results, announced on March 26, and has demanded a recount — even though the election was certified by U.N. observers as largely aboveboard. The incumbent has also won from the Supreme Court an interpretation of Iraq's constitution that could prevent Allawi from having first bite at forming a new government. The constitution requires that the "bloc" with the most seats be given 30 days to form a ruling coalition, but in response to al-Maliki's inquiry, the court has ruled that bloc doesn't mean electoral slate, but rather the alliances as they present themselves when the parliament is seated, toward the end of April. If al-Maliki can cut deals to give him a bigger coalition by then, he'll get first bite at forming a government.

Nor will al-Maliki be unhappy about the efforts of others to trim Allawi's advantage before then. The Justice and Accountability (formerly De-Baathification) Commission, which operates under the guidance of Ahmed Chalabi — the onetime Pentagon favorite now running on the Iran-backed Iraqi National Alliance (INA) slate — announced on Tuesday its intention to demand that the Supreme Court disqualify as ineligible three candidates on Allawi's list because of alleged ties to the former regime of Saddam Hussein. If the court upholds this challenge — and it has sympathetically received the commission's previous effort to expel Sunni candidates — al-Maliki's 89 seats could then, theoretically, be deemed to have finished first.

Despite the secular-nationalist orientation of both al-Maliki's and Allawi's slates, the election results showed a familiar sectarian split. Most Sunnis voted for Allawi's Iraqiya list, while the Shi'ite vote was split between al-Maliki's State of Law slate and that of the INA, representing the Shi'ite Islamist parties that had put al-Maliki in power. If al-Maliki could mend the rift in the Shi'ite vote and cut a deal with the INA (which won 70 seats), that combination alone would put him just four seats shy of a majority — a difference he could easily make up by resuming his alliance with the Kurdish bloc, which garnered 43 seats. It may not be that easy, of course, because both the key element of the INA — the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr — and the Kurdish leadership have been antagonized by al-Maliki's leadership and would prefer to see him gone. They could yet try and make replacing al-Maliki a key condition for joining a coalition with his political bloc.

But the Sunnis are having none of it. Having boycotted the 2005 election, they participated en masse this time, handing Allawi what they consider to be a clear victory. Some leading members of his bloc have warned that violence would be the consequence if the Iraqiya list were denied what they consider to be their right to lead the government. Iraq's Sunnis have been suspicious of the Shi'ite-led government of al-Maliki, not without reason, and there has been an acute sense of betrayal among the former insurgents who joined the Sunni Awakening, which facilitated the success of the U.S. troop surge, only to find themselves stiffed by al-Maliki's government.

Until now, the working assumption of Iraqi politics has been that no ethnic group or sect can be excluded from a share of power without the risk of creating dangerous instability. And that may be more true than ever, after the Sunnis came in from the cold, first in turning on al-Qaeda, and then in participating in the election. But despite some perfunctory efforts to include some Sunni representation, addressing Sunni communal aspirations has never been al-Maliki's priority. And the arithmetic of inclusion has become vastly more difficult now that the Sunnis believe they won the election.

Allawi may be stoking resentment by blaming any move to keep him out of power on meddling by Tehran. "Iran is interfering quite heavily, and this is worrying," he told the BBC on Tuesday, noting that the Iranian leadership had invited the other major factions but not his own for talks in Tehran over the shape of the next Iraqi government.

There may be an element of truth in that charge, because Iran has previously backed the broad Shi'ite-Kurdish alliance that brought al-Maliki to power, and is clearly pressing for another friendly, Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad. Allawi is fiercely antagonistic toward Tehran, and his bloc was strongly backed by Sunni Arab regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, which are leery of Iranian influence in Arab lands. (Those governments have been standoffish toward al-Maliki.)

Al-Maliki did send a delegation to the Iranian city of Qum last weekend to seek the backing of Iraqi Shi'ite firebrand cleric al-Sadr, whose supporters are the largest and most influential element within the INA. Indeed, with some 40 seats won by his followers, al-Sadr has emerged as a potential kingmaker. His enmity toward al-Maliki is well established, however, especially since al-Maliki unleashed the Iraqi military on al-Sadr's supporters in Basra in 2008. Al-Sadr has warned that he would veto a second term for al-Maliki, and so the Prime Minister's delegation in Qum sought to persuade al-Sadr to drop the veto. (An al-Maliki spokesman said the mission was a success, while an al-Sadr spokesman denied that a deal had been made.)

Despite U.S. hopes that the election would confirm a trend toward stability in Iraq, it appears to have produced a political deadlock that may not easily be broken by the constitutional mechanisms. Months of maneuvering and brinkmanship lie ahead, with a growing threat of violence in the political vacuum. The election results appear to confirm that no single power center, local or foreign, is capable of stabilizing Iraq on its own terms. The country's prospects in the anxious months ahead may depend as much on the wisdom and statesmanship of its own politicians as on the extent of conflict or cooperation between the U.S., the Arab regimes and Iran. The escalating standoff between Washington and Tehran is unlikely to help.