Religious Parties Now Key to Iraq Rule

by MARGARET COKER

After Non-Sectarian Campaigns, Allawi and Maliki Woo Third-Place Shiite Slate in Race to Form a New Government

BAGHDAD—Iraq's main Shiite slate, with its third-place finish in parliamentary elections, has emerged as kingmaker in efforts to form a new government here, but members are divided on how to wield that power amid growing sectarian tensions, according to some leaders of the group.

Associated Press

Mourners in Baghdad on Sunday carry the coffin of Khalil al Obaidi, a Sunni leader who was killed by a sniper while celebrating the victory of Ayad Allawi's bloc. The death raises concerns about sectarian violence re-emerging after the election. Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya bloc won 91 seats in the 325-member parliament, according to preliminary results.

Meanwhile, a nonbinding opinion issued late last week by the country's Supreme Court has further blurred how the already-complex process of building a next government will unfold.

How Iraq forms its next government is being closely watched in the U.S. and the region as the fragile democracy teeters between a continued period of politics dominated by sectarian issues or a future less fueled by them. The country's Shiite majority has enjoyed a lock on power since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, yet voters indicated in this election that they are interested less in religion and more in issues such as basic social services.

On Sunday, several bombs exploded Sunday near a house linked to a prominent Sunni figure who ran in this month's parliamentary elections, killing five people and wounding 26 others, a police official said, according to the Associated Press. The attack adds to fears of postelection violence as the election rivals enter what are expected to be drawn-out talks on forming the next government.

Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc won 91 seats in the 325-member parliament, beating the incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's alliance, which garnered 89 seats, according to preliminary final results released on Friday. Both men ran on non-sectarian platforms, but each is now wooing religious parties to gain control of a majority of seats.

According to the constitution, the party with the largest bloc of seats in parliament gets the first chance to form a government. That had widely been interpreted as meaning the slate that won the most seats in the vote.

However, the court's nonbinding opinion appeared to widen the definition of "bloc" to mean the largest number of seats controlled by a single alliance at the time that parliament inaugurates its first session, which may not happen for several weeks.

Aides to Mr. Maliki and members of his State of Law coalition have jumped on the court's broadened interpretation as giving them a chance to sideline Mr. Allawi and his Sunni-dominated bloc by forming a grand alliance with another political slate, thus locking in more seats than Iraqiya.

The Iran-backed Iraqi National Alliance, a Shiite umbrella group of several parties, is in a position to drive a hard bargain with either Mr. Allawi or Mr. Maliki, both of whom have reached out to the group in recent days. The INA won 70 seats, the third-highest total in the election.

Mr. Allawi said In an interview with The Wall Street Journal over the weekend that he anticipated an easy alliance between his Iraqiya slate and Iraq's Kurdish bloc, which finished fourth, given his strong friendship with the veteran Kurdish politicians who lead all the major parties within their bloc.

That still wouldn't give him the majority needed to form a government. Mr. Allawi also said that he was confident of coming to an agreement with Shiite parties as well, to build an "inclusive" national government.

"We are interested in parties who reject sectarianism," he said in the interview at his home. "The Iraqi people need a strong government with a mission that will ensure important things like stability, adequate services .... and prosperity," he said.

Leading members of the Shiite alliance say that their support is still up for grabs, although there are indications that the party that won the most votes within the INA could be leaning towards Mr. Allawi's camp. Others have said they would prefer to join Mr. Maliki. The debate inside the Shiite slate could eventually threaten a split, though there is no indication so far that differences between leaders run that deep.

Two officials close to Moqtada Al Sadr, the anti-American cleric, say that their movement, which won some 40 of INA's 70 seats, is concerned with the potential backlash inside Iraq should they rebuff Mr. Allawi's entreaties in favor of an alliance with Mr. Maliki's bloc.

Dissatisfaction with Mr. Maliki runs high among the Sadrists, and members of the cleric's movement have already stated that they wouldn't accept a new government in which the prime minister kept his job. The two officials said that the major concern for their movement was renewed instability should a new government exclude the Sunni voters who turned out in high numbers for Iraqiya.

"We do not want to be identified as sectarian. If violence breaks out, we would be blamed," said one of the officials.

Their position is at odds with that of Ahmad Chalabi, who leads a smaller party within the INA. Mr. Chalabi, a one-time darling of the Pentagon, has since carved out close ties with Iran, as well as an influential position in Iraqi politics.

In an interview Sunday, Mr. Chalabi said he is advocating an alliance between INA and Mr. Maliki's State of Law, with the aim of keeping Shiites in power. Mr. Chalabi, while acknowledging that Mr. Allawi's bloc won the election, said that allowing him to form a new government would be dangerous for Iraq because of what he claims are active elements of Saddam Hussein's Baathist party within Mr. Allawi's Sunni-heavy alliance.

Mr. Allawi says this allegation is a political tactic used to discredit his victory.

Mr. Chalabi, who has won a seat in parliament, is also the chairman of the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice. Ahead of the election, the commission disqualified hundreds of candidates standing in the election, citing unpublished evidence linking them to Mr. Hussein's former party.

To many Iraqis, the decision smacked of a political dirty trick, especially as commission members were running for re-election themselves. Mr. Chalabi denied that the decisions were politically motivated.

Mr. Chalabi said that his commission has identified 55 additional electoral candidates facing disqualification after the vote, due to evidence linking them to the Baath Party. Of that number, 22 belong to Iraqiya, he said.

However, it is "highly unlikely" that this additional purge would affect the amount of seats that Iraqiya controls because they weren't high enough on the Iraqiya's list to have won seats, Mr. Chalabi said.

Write to Margaret Coker at margaret.coker@wsj.com