Stretching newfound democratic muscle upon their first chance to elect a full-term government, Iraqis overwhelmingly threw their support behind religious parties defined along sectarian lines and ethnicity.
A bloc of Shiite religious parties close to Iran has, according to results released Tuesday, attracted the largest percentage of voters.
Here in the capital, a national barometer because it is the most diverse of Iraq's 18 provinces, the United Iraq Alliance - religious Shiites who dominated the interim government formed in May - won about 58 percent of the vote.
A Sunni Islamist alliance comprised of politicians who have defended the insurgency campaign against US troops came in next, with close to 19 percent.
Trailing in third is Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who was favored by the US and Iraqi moderates hoping to rise above the country's rising sectarianism. Mr. Allawi, billed as a man who could unite parties and crack down on terrorism, received less than 14 percent of the vote.
Results are still preliminary and a final count may not be announced until January. But what clearly emerges is the tendency of millions of Iraqis to turn to religious and sectarian leaders to represent their interests in the post-Saddam political arena.
With more than three-quarters of the country giving a vote of confidence to Islamist parties, last Thursday's vote raises the prospect of Iraq being more overtly religious than ever before.
The ideological orientation of the two leading vote-getters means Washington may have to work with a government of leaders who have resented the US presence here and demanded some kind of timetable for a troop withdrawal.
Clouding the election process are more than 1,000 complaints of irregularities, 20 of them considered serious enough to be deemed "red-card" violations. "The results won't be announced until those red complaints are resolved," said US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Several Iraqi observers say they were deeply concerned over whether voters will see the results as legitimate, and raised the possibility of increased strife if claims of vote-rigging and the use of force at the polls are not answered.
Both Allawi and the Sunni alliance have made charges of voter fraud, and suggested that the Iraqi election commission was stacked with Shiite sympathizers.
"What will happen if even five of these red complaints don't get resolved?" asks Ismail Zayer, the editor of the Sabah el-Jadida (New Morning) newspaper. "We will have a national crisis on our hands because I don't think the Sunni coalition will accept that," he adds. "I think a lot of the moderates were putting their hopes in Allawi because he was the one who was going to be able to bridge the gap as a secular person who didn't want to focus on sectarian interests."
Since its creation as a nation-state by British and other power brokers in the post-World War I Middle East, Iraq has been tenuously held together by emphasizing national identity over religious and sectarian ties. Sunni Arabs, however, were entrusted with the country's leadership. And although Saddam Hussein's Baath Party was set up to be a supposedly secular nationalist party with roots in socialism, the former dictator increasingly relied on Sunni tribal ties to maintain his power base.
Today's shift toward Islamic parties, says Thabit A. J. Abdullah, a history professor at York University in Toronto, has grown in part as a backlash against that period, as well as a reaction to the postwar turmoil since Mr. Hussein's overthrow by US forces in April 2003.
Professor Abdullah, a native of Baghdad, recently returned to find sectarian divisions palpable at a level that didn't exist 25 or 30 years ago.
He points to the US decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army after the invasion and the ensuing social disorder as an example of why many Iraqis have turned to religious leaders: They have been one of the few constant comforts in a sea of upheaval.
"Whatever kind of a national fabric - the Army, the police - was done away with, there was nothing to fill that vacuum. Nothing replaced it. So, people will look to those leaders who stood by them through their decades of need - at the mosque," he says.
Abdullah says it was unrealistic for the US to assume that Hussein would be replaced with a government that would put a premium on Western ideals, or that a critical mass of Iraqis would choose an overtly pro-US leader who promised to stay out of the sectarian fray.
"Anyone who expected secular democracy and liberal, Western values to suddenly become ingrained in the Iraqi psyche is totally deluding himself," he says.
The Shiite coalition that is likely to determine the configuration of Iraq's next government is made up of several parties that don't necessarily agree with one another's outlook, for example, on the role of the clergy in politics.
That ticket, known as 555, did extraordinarily well in the south - winning over 77 percent of the vote in Basra. But newspapers in Baghdad have carried stories of voter manipulation in those areas, telling of instances in which voters were met at the polling stations by officials asking them to put a hand over the Koran and swear to vote for the Shiite religious ticket.
Kurdish parties, meanwhile, garnered an overwhelming majority in northern Iraq.
Mr. Khalilzad, giving a year-end press conference, acknowledged that most Iraqis preferred to cast votes along sectarian and ethnic lines. "But for Iraq to succeed," he warned, "there has to be a cross-sectarian cooperation." Too heavy of a focus on sectarian ties, he said, "undercuts prospects for success."
With growing protests and the threat of a Sunni walkout looming, the hard work of coalition building has hardly begun.
But many here are trying to work out the permeations. While the Shiite religious politicians seem most likely to turn first to their recent allies in the Kurdish parties, there is also speculation that Iraq could see the emergence of an Islamic coalition that would unite Sunnis and Shiites.
Another scenario includes the possibility of disgruntled Sunni Arabs and Kurds allying themselves with Allawi to form a multiparty coalition to prevent Shiites from assuming power.
And as the election results roll in, still other options exist.
The wider the Shiite victory, the less they will need coalition partners to control the 275-seat parliament for the next four years.