A slate packed with Shiite politicians who want Islam to govern much of Iraqi life rolled to victory in the country's first free election in 50 years. Its members will take almost half the seats in a 275-member national assembly that will write a new constitution.
The results of the Jan. 30 vote, released Sunday, confirm a profound political shift, with Iraq's majority Shiite Arabs - treated as second-class citizens under Saddam Hussein - finally translating their numerical weight into political power.
But where Iraq's transformation will lead remains uncertain. In addition to confirming the Shiite Arab dominance, the results showed abysmal turnout among the Sunni Arab minority who profited under Mr. Hussein and have driven the war against the US-led coalition and the interim government.
That leaves a Shiite-led government backed by the US military squaring off against a Sunni Arab-led insurgency that could cause Iraq's burgeoning civil strife to deepen. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who leads the most extreme fringe of Iraq's diverse and decentralized insurgency, has repeatedly called for war with Iraq's Shiites.
Many Iraqi Shiites say they're hoping the new government will hit the insurgents hard once it takes power and controls positions in the Interior Ministry and the emerging Iraqi military.
"The new government has to be a lot tougher, fight force with more force,'' says Uday Allawi, a young policeman and Shiite in Baghdad.
Two other Iraqi policemen say the use of torture against captured Sunni insurgents has become routine.
Nagem Mohammed, a Shiite woman who works in a bookshop in central Baghdad, also wants a tough line.
"If the government is strong, not like Saddam, but strong, things will get better,'' she says. "They will control the security situation by not showing any mercy to the insurgents, even if they have to hang them."
Coming in second behind the religious Shiites' United Iraqi Alliance List (UIA), which will hold about 130 seats in the assembly, was an ethnic Kurdish list that took about 26 percent, or 70, of the seats. The party of the secular Shiite and US favorite Iyad Allawi came a distant third, with about 14 percent, or 38 seats.
The UIA is led by the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Shiite parties that have ties to Iran and would like Islam to play a much bigger role in the country's government.
A turnout of 8.45 million votes - or about 59 percent turnout of 14.2 million eligible voters, according to new figures given Sunday - was low for a transitional election, and reflected wartime conditions and a boycott by many Sunnis. In elections surveyed by the Monitor that marked a shift from dictatorship to democracy and were sometimes held under war conditions over the past 15 years, turnout has averaged 77 percent. Only Bosnia's parliamentary elections of 1996, which were boycotted by many Serbs, had lower turnout, with just 46 percent. In the last transitional election, in Afghanistan, turnout was 80 percent.
Since the Iraqi election, violence - much of it with sectarian overtones - has swept back across this troubled country, emphasizing the tough road that lies ahead for the US and Iraq's new leaders.
In the past week, unarmed Shiite Arabs have been a particular target of insurgent attacks, with deadly bomb blasts outside two Shiite mosques, a hospital in the mostly Shiite town of Musayyib, and an armed raid on a Baghdad bakery. In all, at least 100 civilians were killed in attacks during the week.
The violence has cast a pall over what is otherwise a joyful day for millions of Iraqis, with most residents of Baghdad rushing to get home before nightfall rather than staying out to celebrate the results.
US officials had hoped Sunni voters would defy insurgents and turn out in large numbers to vote, thereby sending a message to fighters that they're in a tiny minority. But most Sunni Arabs did not go to the polls. In the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province, only 2 percent of adults voted. In largely Sunni Salahuddin, Hussein's home province, just 32 percent voted.
Though Allawi's list has some Sunni Arabs on it, the two Sunni parties that didn't boycott the election did poorly, and the assembly will have far fewer Sunni Arabs than their 20 percent share of the population would warrant. The election list of Sunni interim President Ghazi Al-Yawar won about five seats, while the list of Adnan Al-Pachachi, a former top diplomat and exile, failed to win a single seat.
While Sunni Arab groups are fighting for a variety of reasons, they are bound by the common expectation that their once-privileged position is coming to an end.
Shiite leaders have repeatedly offered olive branches to Sunni groups with ties to the insurgency, offering them a say in the writing of the constitution, whatever the election returns. But now they will be tested by the demands of the people who have brought them to power.
"I think the situation is going to get worse from here,'' says Hodayer Abbas, who repairs air conditioners in Baghdad. "I'm not sure how the government should solve the problems, but they shouldn't give roles in the government to the fighters. They're murderers and that shouldn't be rewarded."
Hussein routinely used vicious collective punishment against Shiite and Kurdish communities, both of whom defied his government. Now these two groups hold most of the cards in parliament.
But with no party holding the two-thirds of parliament needed to control the government, coalitions will have to be made.
There are vast differences between the religious Shiites and the secular leaning Kurds, who want to maintain the de facto autonomy they won in the 1990s thanks to the US-patrolled no-fly zone that protected them from the Iraqi Army.
The UIA says it wants either Ibrahim Jaafari of the Dawa Party or Adel Abdul Mahdi of SCIRI to be Iraq's next prime minister. The Kurds say they want Jalal Talabani, a veteran Kurdish leader, to be made president.
While it's possible the two sides will come to an arrangement, the Kurds also want to incorporate Kirkuk, the northern city that serves as a hub for Iraqi oil production, into their region, something that the main Shiite parties oppose.
Mr. Allawi has been scrambling to protect his position, flying to the Kurdish area this week to form an alliance. His secular leaning leaves him with more in common with the Kurds than the religious Shiites, but the two groups together still have fewer seats than the UIA.