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Sadr followers snub Allawi and Maliki. Who will lead Iraq?

With followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr saying they support neither Nouri al-Maliki nor Iyad Allawi, the top two vote-getters continue to jostle for allies to form a coalition that will lead Iraq.

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While Allawi, as the winner, would normally get first dibs on forming a government, Maliki has challenged that right. So both leaders are jostling to ally with other parties that will give them at least 163 seats in parliament – and the right to lead Iraq.

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Whoever takes the helm will shape the future of Iraq's nascent democracy. It will also help determine how Baghdad addresses tensions with the Kurds, who seek to expand their autonomy to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and a greater share of oil profits.

Maliki has charged massive fraud since slipping behind Allawi in the final tally, calling for a recount of every ballot to prevent violence and threatening to use the Iraqi military to do so. Security forces under Maliki's control have also issued arrest warrants for four winning candidates on Allawi's slate, while a controversial de-Baathification commission ruled others ineligible to take their seats. Allawi decried the moves as political ploys. Allawi has also accused Shiite Iran of meddling by hosting postelection meetings with Kurdish and Shiite factions, including Maliki's bloc.

On March 31, the United Nations called on all parties to accept the election results and "avoid inflammatory rhetoric and actions," noting that international observers had confidence in the election's "overall integrity."

Potential coalition with Kurds, Moqtada al-Sadr

Among possible coalition partners for Maliki and Allawi are the followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Though Sadrists – who will control more than half of the 70 seats won by their Shiite alliance – share Maliki's Shiite religion, they remain bitter over Maliki-ordered assaults on their militia in 2008.

But today, following a two-day referendum among Mr. Sadr's supporters held Friday and Saturday, Sadrist officials said they had chosen former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari as their nominee to lead Iraq. Jaafar Mohammed al-Sadr, a relative of the cleric whose name was on the ballot, finished second. Maliki finished fourth and Allawi finished fifth among the 1.43 million votes cast. It is not legally binding.

Kurdish parties, which won more than 50 seats, likewise have issues with Maliki's forays against Kurdish peshmerga, or militia, and are worried about both men's strong Iraqi nationalism.

Maliki's "overt threat of violence if he doesn't get his own way has alienated even more the people who would need to back him" in a coalition government, says Mr. Dodge. But Dodge is also unsure that Allawi has matured as a leader since getting bumped out in 2005. "I'm yet to be convinced that he has the modesty and diplomatic skills to form a working coalition."