BAGHDAD — After a historic election in early March, Iraq is still months from forming a new government as political leaders jockey for position in a race that appears to have little to do with voters.
The initial results from the March 7 vote for only the second parliament since Saddam Hussein was toppled put Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Shiite Muslim coalition narrowly behind that of his secular Shiite challenger Ayad Allawi.
While political leaders made a flurry of what officials called unseemly visits to neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which all are thought to have played backstage roles in the elections, an Iraqi appeals panel upheld a challenge by Prime Minister Maliki and ordered a recount of more than 20 percent of the votes.
"You still get the sense that Maliki is hoping some sort of miracle is going to put him in the lead in terms of number of seats in parliament and as long as he clings to that hope the whole process will get delayed," said Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
With the U.N. having said it hadn't seen any evidence of widespread fraud, the recount was widely seen as a bow to political pressure. The painstaking manual count of more than 2 million votes cast in and around Baghdad and an investigation of other complaints is expected to delay certifying the tally by several weeks.
Positions in the 325-seat parliament were split among four main political blocs, meaning that at least three of them probably would have to band together to form a comfortable majority. Six weeks after the vote, however, serious talks still haven't begun.
"I don't detect serious movement yet on the real decisions regarding government formation," said Ambassador Gary Grappo, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "I could envision a scenario where it might go relatively quickly and you could have something by early June, but it could drag through the summer."
U.S. and Iraqi officials said the political parties are willing enough to bargain that a coalition government could take almost any kind of form but will have a hard time overcoming their objections to the leaders themselves.
Maliki emerged during his four years in power as an autocrat who alienated almost all of his coalition members and former political allies. Allawi, a former prime minister with U.S. ties, has been painted by religious Shiite parties as pro-Baathist. Many officials said it could be difficult for either of them to build enough support to head a government, which could lead to a lesser-known compromise candidate becoming prime minister.
"You don't find the kind of debate you might find in a more advanced democracy when you're talking about fiscal policies, great social policies or health care _ things of that nature," said Grappo. "They're wondering which party may get which ministry and specifically which party or coalition may be placed there."
"There is a lot of bad blood between the personalities, and there are a lot of different personalities involved," said a senior Kurdish official who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak more candidly. "The optimistic scenario is that this will drag on until May or June _ some people are giving it until August or September."
"As far as we are concerned, we don't have any red lines against anybody," he said, referring to how the Kurdish bloc expected to be a powerbroker in the coalition building.
Kurdish leaders made it clear before the election that the Kurds, who've won at least 56 seats, would support whoever was prepared to offer them the most on Kirkuk and other disputed areas.
With voters widely rejecting politicians who focused on religion rather than basic services, analysts said the debate has more to do with party politics than with the Iraqi people.
"Really the resistance to Allawi is most pronounced at the level of the leaders and not the general population," said Vassir. "We should not forget that Allawi was able to attract hundreds and thousands of votes south of Baghdad as well _ he actually has some support in most Shiite areas."
Vasser, the editor of the Iraq website Historiae.org, thinks that both Maliki's and Allawi's supporters want many of the same things, including a strong central government controlling the oil sector. While everyone calls for a government with more Sunni participation than the last one had, there are fears that a coalition that's too broad-based could be paralyzing.
"The only thing we can say with certainty is if we get this big government with all four alliances, it will hardly be able to agree on anything," Vasser says. "Then you will have a big parliamentary majority but they won't be able to use it for anything because they won't be able to agree."
Fractures within the Shiite parties are further complicating government formation. Before the election, Maliki broke from his original coalition in a dispute over how much power he should have. Talks to unify the three main Shiite parties again have failed, seemingly over the same issue, analysts said.
One of the main Shiite blocs, the Sadr movement, has been at odds with Maliki since he sent troops against their military wing in the southern city of Basra and the Baghdad Shiite neghborhood Sadr City two years ago. Including the Sadrists in a coalition also would complicate relations with the United States. Fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr have fought U.S. forces in the streets, and the organization refuses to meet with or deal with U.S. officials.
Some fear that a failure to build an effective and inclusive coalition government this time could tear the country apart.
"I believe this period is the most dangerous period here in Iraq," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "I don't want to sound alarmist, but unless we get it right, unless we fix the government formation, if one group feels they have been denied their victory, that they are marginalized...they will abandon the process and that will lead to the literal division of the country."