A secular Shiite, Ayad Allawi, has won a narrow plurality in Iraq's national election, but it is a religious Shia party that will likely determine if he'll form a government.
Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya party took 91 of the 325 seats in Iraq's Council of Representatives, electoral officials declared yesterday, 19 days after 12 million Iraqis went to the polls.
The current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose party won 89 seats, immediately announced he would not accept the results and called for a recount.
But it is the third-place Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a coalition dominated by two religious Shia parties, that is in the driver's seat.
With 163 members needed to form a majority, the result means that unless Mr. Allawi and Mr. Maliki join forces - which is highly unlikely, since they despise one other - the only way either man can likely form a government is with the support of the INA. Any coalition formed without it would be too fragmented and give undue clout to smaller parties.
Mr. Maliki, leader of the Shia religious Dawa party, would seem a natural partner for the INA, the product of a union between the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Ammar al-Hakim, and the Sadrist followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. All three parties are pro-Iranian.
But two things stand in the way of such a coalition. The Sadrists want no part of a government led by Mr. Maliki, the man who crushed the Sadrist militia in Basra and Baghdad, while Mr. Hakim professes to have learned his lesson in last year's provincial election that it is more important to emphasize broad national interests than narrow sectarian ones.
Indeed, it was the 2005 coalition government of these three elements, along with major Kurdish parties, that contributed to the country's bloody sectarian conflict and the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Nevertheless, many Iraq watchers believe that Iran would still prefer to see these three Shia parties hook up again. That was reportedly Tehran's view last summer when the three considered a union, but it was Mr. Maliki who turned his back on the idea, preferring to go it alone with his State of Law bloc. Now it's Mr. Maliki who needs allies.
New life was breathed into the idea of a reunion of the pro-Iranian groups by a Supreme Court decision handed down this week. The court held that the stipulation in the constitution that the bloc with the largest number of seats gets the first chance to form a government is not limited to a bloc that ran in the election. It also could mean a group of parties formed after the vote. In other words, a quickly formed coalition of the three Shia religious parties could claim the right to try to form the next government.
For his part, Mr. Allawi, who served as the first, provisional prime minister in 2004, can argue that such a coalition will only stoke the fires of sectarianism, something that most Iraqis want to avoid.
Indeed, Mr. Allawi's success is testament to that. A secular Shiite, he ran in partnership with several Sunni political figures determined to get a share of power. Mr. Allawi polled well in Sunni districts but, as Iraq-watcher Reidar Visser observed last night, his victory was more than just about his appeal across the sectarian divide.
"By winning more seats than expected south of Baghdad [where Shiites predominate] and almost as many seats as Maliki in [religiously mixed]Baghdad, Allawi has proved that he is more than 'the candidate of the Sunnis'," Mr. Visser wrote on his highly regarded historiae.org website.
With the support of the INA's 70 members, plus a handful of others, Mr. Allawi could form a government. While some analysts, such as Mr. Visser, caution that uniting Iraqiya with the INA could "mean another oversized, ineffective government populated by parties with little in common," not everyone agrees. Sheik Jalal Eddin al-Saghir, the INA's most senior council member, says he has tried to get Mr. Allawi to join their alliance in the past.
"We can work with him," said Sheik al-Saghir, imam of Baghdad's most important Shia mosque.
Some of Mr. Allawi's Sunni partners may have trouble working with the INA, however.
It was the INA that launched an anti-Baathist campaign that prevented several Sunni politicians from running in the election. Many of those blocked from running hailed from Iraqiya. They argue that they hold no brief for the memory of Saddam Hussein and left the Baath party long ago. Their history, they say, should not bar them from political office.
These same Iraqiya politicians may also have a difficult time teaming up with some of Iraq's Kurdish political leaders. Prominent in Mr. Allawi's party is a group of arch-nationalists who are determined to prevent the Kurds from claiming territory in and around the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk that lie between the Kurds' northern heartland and Sunni Arab population centres.
Indeed, the first move in the game of coalition-building may well be an attempt by the major Kurdish leaders to team up themselves with the INA. Both groups share a preference for Canadian-style decentralized federalism and together could parley their combined force into concessions from either Mr. Allawi or Mr. Maliki.