As Iraq's politicians jockey for power to form a new government, Iraqis on the streets hope that their vote in the March 7 elections will help end sectarianism and violence after seven years of insecurity.
That's why he supports secular challenger Iyad Allawi, whose alliance narrowly beat Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite bloc. But minibus driver Mohamed Qarghil sees Mr. Maliki as the best man for the job.
"He has achieved security and stability," says Mr. Qarghli, who lived through the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad neighborhoods by Sunni and Shiite militias. "We noticed the change. We now can go out and move around different areas of the city."
The view of many Iraqis on both sides of the Maliki-Allawi divide may be summed up by Sundus Abbas, a Sunni student. "Religion should be between a man and God," she says. "The state is for everyone."
Both Maliki and Mr. Allawi tapped into that sentiment, campaigning as staunch Iraqi nationalists – despite long exiles from Iraq – and seeking to distance themselves from sectarian ties (see box).
"Both of them tried to play the same music – to revive Iraqi nationalism," says Mustafa Alani at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, adding that Iraqis are tired of religious parties. "That is why both Allawi and Maliki won a high percentage of the vote, because even Maliki tried to detach himself from the religious groups."
Maliki cries foul, UN calls election fair
Allawi's alliance cut across sectarian lines, winning 91 seats to Maliki's 89, but neither won the outright majority required to form a government.
"You could argue that Sunnis and Shiites both want a strong state with a secular ideology, but they are voting for different parties to deliver it," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.
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.
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."