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Iraq voters face long wait for new government as Maliki, others jockey for power

Prime Minister Maliki and others are maneuvering for influence in the wake of the March 7 vote, results of which are being delayed by a recount and investigation of other complaints. Inability to form an effective new Iraq government could further divide the country.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / April 23, 2010

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is shown during an interview with reporters in Baghdad, Iraq, in this Feb. 28 file photo. In the wake of the March 7 election, Iraq’s new government is still months from formation as political leaders jockey for position in a race that appears to have little to do with voters.

Khalid Mohammed/AP/File

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Baghdad

After a historic election in early March, Iraq’s new government is still months from formation as political leaders jockey for position in a race that appears to have little to do with voters.

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Initial results from the March 7 vote for only the second parliament since Saddam Hussein was toppled put Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite coalition narrowly behind that of his secular Shiite challenger Ayad Allawi.

While political leaders made a flurry of what officials called unseemly visits to neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all believed to have played a backstage role in the elections, an Iraqi appeals panel upheld a challenge by the prime minister and ordered a recount of more than 20 percent of the votes cast in Iraq.

“You still get the sense that Maliki is hoping some sort of miracle is going to put him in the lead in terms of number of seats in parliament and as long as he clings to that hope the whole process will get delayed,” says Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

With the UN having said it had not seen any evidence of widespread fraud, the recount was widely seen as a bow to political pressure. The painstaking manual count of more than 2 million votes cast in and around Baghdad and investigation of other complaints is expected to delay certifying the tally by several weeks.

No party talks yet

Positions in the 325-seat parliament were split between four main political blocs, meaning that at least three of them would probably have to band together to form a comfortable majority. But six weeks after the vote, serious talks still haven’t begun.

“I don’t detect serious movement yet on the real decisions regarding government formation,” says Ambassador Gary Grappo, political counselor at the US embassy in Baghdad. “I could envision a scenario where it might go relatively quickly and you could have something by early June but it could drag through the summer.”

US and Iraqi officials say the political parties are willing enough to bargain that a coalition government could take almost any kind of form but will have a hard time overcoming their objections to the leaders themselves.

Maliki emerged during his four years in power as an autocrat who alienated almost all of his coalition members and former political allies. Allawi, a former prime minister with US ties, has been painted by religious Shiite parties as pro-Baathist. Many officials say it could be difficult for either of them to build enough support to head a government, which could lead to a lesser-known compromise candidate becoming prime minister.

Bad blood

“You don’t find the kind of debate you might find in a more advanced democracy when you’re talking about fiscal policies, great social policies or health care things of that nature,” says Ambassador Grappo. “They’re wondering which party may get which ministry and specifically which party or coalition may be placed there…so it’s more along personalities.”

“There is a lot of bad blood between the personalities and there are a lot of different personalities involved,” says a senior Kurdish official who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak more candidly. “The optimistic scenario is that this will drag on until May or June – some people are giving it until August or September.”

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