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Arab neighbors cast a wary eye on Iraq election results

With the first Iraq election results coming in, Middle East countries are watching close and gauging what the vote means for their influence on the oil-rich state.

By Correspondent, and Tom A. PeterCorrespondent / March 11, 2010

Iraq election: Electoral workers sort through ballots cast in the national election in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday. Iraqi and UN officials say the first results from this week's parliamentary elections are likely to be released on Thursday.

Karim Kadim/AP

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Cairo and Amman, Jordan

As the first Iraq election results started to trickle in Thursday, many countries in the Middle East were watching closely for clues to how the outcome will shape regional dynamics.

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A victory by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition, which initial results show leading a tight race, would likely ensure the continued presence and influence of Iran in Iraqi politics.

But majority Sunni nations are watching for a surge from Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition. Mr. Allawi, a secular Shiite and former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, is seen as an Arab nationalist whose policies would tilt toward his Arab neighbors, rather than to Iran.

Under Mr. Hussein, Iraq was a bulwark for Arab states against the regional ambitions and influence of Iran, a Shiite regime long feared and often hated by its Sunni neighbors. Arab leaders are concerned that oil-rich Iraq could become part of an expanding sphere of Iranian influence.

"The issue here will be the reaction of Iran and the Sunni countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia," said Emad Gad, a political analyst at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-financed think tank. "Iran is dealing with Iraq today as a region of Iranian influence, so Iran will refuse any Iraqi government that doesn’t deal with Iran as a big brother." Saudi Arabia would likely try to isolate a new Maliki government to counter Iranian influence, says Dr. Gad.

A new phase

Many in the region are watching the election with trepidation, and wondering what kind of regime will be left behind when US forces withdraw.

"We might be moving into a new phase where as the US takes a bow the other regional players step up their own presence, but it’s difficult to tell for now," says Peter Harling, the International Crisis Group’s project director for Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. "That’s one of the question marks for the period to come, how the US withdrawal and the vacuum that it entails will play out regionally."

In largely Sunni Arab Jordan, home to the second-largest population of Iraqi refugees after Syria, grocer Majdi Hijazin says he worries about what will happen if Shiites or Kurds gain more power. Mr. Hijazin says that he, like most Jordanians, hopes the Sunnis will be the big winners in the election. If not, he fears Iran may further influence Iraq, which could negatively affect Jordan in terms of both security and business opportunities.

"Of course it will have an effect on us Jordanians, but it’s very hard to know how exactly this election will affect us," he says. "Jordanians don’t know what the Shiites will do if they come into power."

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