BAGHDAD, Iraq—A Shiite Muslim cleric-led political ticket with close ties to Iran swept Iraq's national elections in final results announced Sunday.
By winning almost 50 percent of the popular vote, which will give it more than half of the seats in the Iraqi national assembly, the United Iraqi Alliance will almost certainly take the nation's prime minister post and have a dominant hand in drafting the constitution.
The tally confirmed what the initial results suggested—that Iraq's majority Shiite population had wrested control of the Iraqi government from the minority Sunnis for the first time in decades.
The new government likely will take control within days, but Iraq's disposition toward the U.S. military presence is unlikely to change any time soon.
Spokesmen for both the Dawa party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq—the two main parties in the Alliance—said they had no plans to call for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
"We reject the occupation but we won't ask them (the multinational forces) to pull out until the security situation improves and the Iraqi house can stand on its feet," said Hadi al-Jaburi, a Supreme Council spokesman.
Officials from both parties also said that though they want Islam to be the main source of the national constitution, they will ensure that the document is inclusive of various sects and ethnicities.
The Shiite Alliance gathered about 4.1 million votes and a Kurdish coalition ticket came in second with more than 2.1 million votes. Both groups were oppressed under former dictator Saddam Hussein. A Shiite secular slate, the Iraqi List, headed by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, came in third with 1.2 million votes.
In the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah on Sunday, men danced in the streets, whirling around in traditional dances and song. Shiites in Baghdad were more somber as they were also observing a holiday that marks the slaughter of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson more than 1,300 years ago.
By casting their ballots amidst threats of death and torture by insurgents, Iraq's voters "became a legend in their confrontation with the terrorists," said Iraqi electoral commission member Farid Ayar.
The 8.4 million votes cast on Jan. 30 represented more than 57 percent of Iraq's registered voters, and about 32 percent of its estimated 25 million total population.
But as the Shiites and Kurds celebrated victories, the fifth of the nation that is Sunni Muslim faced the reality that only one predominantly Sunni ticket, that of interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, will have seats in the assembly—and only five out of 275. A ticket fielded by elder Sunni statesman Adnan Pachachi won too few votes to get a single seat. The Sunni province of Anbar had a voter turnout of 2 percent.
"We are disappointed," said Pachachi, who has been trying to form a group of smaller Sunni parties to prepare for December elections for a permanent prime minister.
The continued marginalization of the long-dominant Sunnis has some in Iraq worried that the Sunni community will see the new government as illegitimate.
"We believe that any government born of these elections is illegitimate," said Omar Zaydan, a spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Association, a large Sunni Muslim religious organization. "It will lack authority because it didn't get the approval from all the sectors of the Iraqi people ... the whole process was wrong from the beginning."
Iraqi politicians will seek to juggle those concerns in deal-making this week. While approaching a majority, Shiites are trying to assemble a coalition giving them the two-thirds assembly vote necessary to ratify the constitution and to appoint a president and two vice presidents who would then pick a prime minister.
Both the Iraqi Alliance and Allawi's group, which has 40 seats, are courting the primary Kurdish ticket, which will have 74 seats in the assembly.
Kurdish leaders, who are seeking the assembly presidency, have said they are willing to align with those most committed to federalism—a buzzword for as much autonomy as possible in the region of northern Iraq that Kurds control.
The Kurds are likely to object to the Shiite Alliance's push for a constitution based on Islamic law, but might bargain in return for assurances of a de facto autonomy that allowed them to live under their own provincial constitution.
Last week, senior Alliance officials said that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's top Shiite cleric, would review their candidates and, if he thought it necessary, drafts of the constitution.
They later backed away from those statements. A theocratic government would undermine the Bush administration's plans for democracy in Iraq and could provide an ally to Iran.
While the Shiite Alliance has said it will work hard to include Sunnis in the new government, many Sunnis have come to mistrust Shiites in general and the Alliance in particular. The main reason is the Alliance's close ties to Iran, Iraq's traditional enemy.
One of the two top parties in the Alliance, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was formed in Iran. The other, Dawa, operated with Iranian backing during its fight against Saddam in the 1980s. The most visible secular member of the Alliance, Ahmad Chalabi, has been the object of unconfirmed allegations that he gave the Iranians classified U.S. intelligence.
Despite the Alliance's close ties to Iran, U.S. officials in Baghdad believe the new government will distance itself from Iran and not stock the new government with Shiite religious leaders. The officials, who asked not to be named, said they believe that checks and balances in the interim constitution, coupled with fears of stoking large-scale sectarian violence, will force the Alliance to be more moderate.
A senior U.S. military official in Baghdad, also speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said recently that the new government must reach out to Sunnis or risk further chaos.
"If the transitional government does not ... make an effort to include all peoples from across Iraq, then they could potentially find themselves disenfranchising parts of the population that would be problematic," he said, referring to the Sunnis. "I've heard people say we have to be careful about falling into a potential civil war."
The official was quick to add that he didn't consider a Shiite-Sunni civil war likely, although CIA reports in the past half-year have raised that possibility.
Aziz Mutar, 50, a Baghdad butcher, was standing outside his shop Sunday evening when asked about the elections and the possibility for sectarian violence erupting into civil war.
"To hell with this government, and to hell with our army," he said. "I cried last night because I saw seven young people killed in the street yesterday ... our only wish is to have peace."
(Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Susannah Nesmith, of the Miami Herald, contributed to this report, as did special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy and Shatha R. al Awsy.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050213 USIRAQ election