Next in Iraq: coalition-building

The new government must finalize the constitution and manage reconstruction.

With a remarkably calm day at the ballot box behind them, Iraqis have begun the far less placid process of tallying up which group emerges as the biggest bloc - and with the clout to chart the country's course for the next four years.

The new government, when it is formed - it took politicians three months after January's vote to agree on a coalition - will immediately face monumental challenges including finalizing a constitution, building up Iraqi security forces able to replace US troops fighting the insurgency, and managing reconstruction projects that have generally been American-run affairs.

The next government, which looks likely to be headed by many of the same Shiite leaders who have been at the helm of the interim government, will also confront the need to prove that it can represent all Iraqis, not just sectarian interests.

The United Iraqi Alliance, a group of Shiite religious parties at the helm of the current interim government, has been quick to claim itself the victor, raising concerns that parties are making premature predictions and not waiting for definitive results, which could take up to two weeks.

That, along with various parties' claims of voting irregularities and complaints from Sunnis that their districts have not been allotted an appropriate number of seats, is expected to encumber efforts to form the government that will probably oversee a gradual decline in the US presence here. "I bless this victory for the alliance list," said Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafaari over the weekend.

Still, most here acknowledge that initial results indicate that the Shiite list will walk away with the lion's share of votes - though without an actual majority. Some 70 percent of Iraq's 15 million registered voters participated in Thursday's largely peaceful election. Violence resumed Sunday, with a number of attacks in Iraqi cities, including two suicide bombings in Baghdad.

Redha Taki, head of the political bureau of SCIRI, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, estimates that the Shiite list will win 120 to 130 of the 275 available seats. The Shiite coalition made its estimates, he says, based on reports sent back to the head office by its more than 20,000 election monitors.

"Thank God, we feel very happy at the success we've had," says Mr. Taki, sitting in his office at SCIRI's headquarters while the party's TV channel, Al-Furat - the third-most popular station in Iraq, according to a recent survey - plays behind him. The station, just a year old, "played an active role in the propaganda in this campaign," he says.

But more important, he says, their leaders spoke to supporters face to face, something other candidates, he asserts, failed to do because of security concerns.

With such healthy numbers, he says, the Shiite list would only need to form a coalition with a partner who could bring another 10 seats to the table in order to form a majority. In that scenario, the religious Shiites and Kurds could form an alliance that would keep out Sunnis, who are already disgruntled with the process.

But instead, Taki says, they will aim for a broader group of partners to form a unity government. "We prefer to put aside the thought of what we could do," he says, "and instead form a coalition with Sunnis and Kurds so we can create political stability."

Meeting the deadline Sunday for registering irregularities with the electoral commission, Iraqi parties filed more than 200 complaints about Thursday's historic vote. The US has been particularly keen to ensure that Sunnis, who largely sat out of January's vote, would turn out in large numbers.

But several Sunni parties have already registered their displeasure, and some suggested they might pull out of the process if they are not convinced that the election was free and fair.

Adnan al-Dulaimi, the senior figure heading a Sunni Islamist list known as the Iraqi Consensus Front, asked the election commission to call a revote at polling centers where violations were registered. Hussein Hindawi, a spokesman for the commission, said that each complaint would be investigated, but no reruns would occur.

Saleh Mutleq, a secular Sunni politician and a rival of Mr. Dulaimi's coalition, charges that the polling was rigged in many stations. He accused the government of obstruction.

"In some places, they closed the polling station at 10 a.m., telling people they were out of ballots, and people went home," Mr. Mutleq says. Afterward, he said, the empty ballots were forged and illegally filled out. "This is not an election. This is not a democracy," he says. "We expected some cheating but not to this extent."

Mutleq says he hoped that the insurgency, which is largely Sunni, might take a different approach if they saw that Sunnis had more representation. Now, he says, he has doubts. He says he was told he might get up to 20 seats in parliament, for example, but says he was predicted to win 70 - a figure that does not match any other group's estimates.

"For any nationalist party, if the results are not right, they should pull out of the parliament and just leave it," he says. "If they don't find a way to compensate us for the votes we've had taken from us, the whole parliament will be false."

Shiite parties also registered complaints, including the secular party of former prime minister Iyad Allawi, who expected to garner more votes than initial results suggest. His party has documented "threats and breaches."

Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr warned against possible fraud in the results and called for an independent committee to be formed to count the ballots, Al-Hurra television reported.

Beyond the partisan accusations, however, several observers said they saw a positive impact of the ballot: recognition that a government partnership of major Iraqi groups - Shiites, Sunni, and Kurds - might be the best recipe for reconciliation. "There are a few good things I see," says Riyad Aziz Hadi, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "One is the wide participation from all communities. And two, that the leadership of the major lists have declared their desire to form a broad coalition, representing all groups to make a national unity government."

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