In tight Iraq parliament vote, upsets point to future battles

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The count in the Iraqi elections isn't yet over, but tallies released this week reveal upsets in restive provinces that portend a weak and fractious Iraq with battles looming on several fronts: Arab-Kurd rivalries, an internecine Shiite Muslim power struggle and what role Sunni Arabs will play in the next government.

Iraq's election commission, under heavy criticism for a tortuous ballot-counting process, now has about 92 percent of votes recorded from the March 7 parliamentary election, the landmark poll that Iraqi and U.S. officials considered a gauge for the kind of nation American forces will leave behind next year.

For all the focus on the extremely tight race between Iraq's top two vote-getters — Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the former interim premier Ayad Allawi — election tallies released this week reveal several smaller dramas unfolding outside the capital. Sunni Arabs have weakened Kurdish leaders in diverse northern provinces, militant Shiites have overtaken their Iranian-backed allies for the religious vote, and many prominent figures will be cast into the political wilderness, according to the near-complete results issued by the Independent High Electoral Commission:

The election for the 325-seat parliament remains too close to call, with results still to come from out-of-country voting and early rounds for security forces and others such as hospital patients who needed special accommodation. Among the noteworthy themes emerging:

- Sunni Arabs have weakened Kurdish leaders in diverse northern provinces.

Iraq's influential Kurdish factions appear to have lost their longtime grip on the ethnically mixed and volatile provinces of Kirkuk, Nineveh and Diyala because of a surge in Sunni Arab voting, a swift undoing of Kurdish gains from the Sunni boycott of the 2005 parliamentary elections.

In the coveted oil-rich province of Kirkuk, Sunni Arab support has earned Allawi's bloc six seats — the same number so far as the archrival Kurdish Alliance, a coalition of the main Kurdish parties. The shock of the close race in Kirkuk fills the talk in taxis, barbershops and supermarkets throughout the mostly autonomous northern Kurdish region.

While some Kurdish politicians blame their poor showing on Arab manipulation and upstart Kurdish parties that split the vote, others say the Kurds simply took Kirkuk for granted or ran negative campaigns that kept would-be supporters from the polls.

Results yet to be announced could change the total slightly, but it's clear that Kurds no longer will enjoy full proprietary rights over Kirkuk, despite charges from Arab leaders that Kurds have tried their best to shift demographics in their favor.

"We expected greater participation from the Sunni Arabs in this election, but the results of Kirkuk were totally beyond our expectations and came as a surprise," said Abdullah Ilyawi, a legislator allied with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "We should have worked harder in Kirkuk to get better results."

In Nineveh, whose provincial capital is the dangerous city of Mosul, Kurds have won just seven seats, compared with the Allawi bloc's 20. Kurdish politicians said they'd expected to win 10 seats in Mosul. Until recently, the province's government and security forces were controlled by Kurds.

In Diyala province, Kurds so far haven't won a single seat, another setback in an area with several Kurdish villages and a strong presence of the Kurdish peshmerga militia.

- A militant Shiite group is overtaking its allies for the Shiite religious vote.

Followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who's currently living in Iran, ran a sophisticated campaign that showed a level of understanding of Iraq's complicated electoral process that was missing among many of their rivals and even allies, Western diplomats and Iraqi monitors said.

As a result, the Sadr movement is on the rise to a kingmaker status typically reserved for Kurds, with at least 32 seats and probably several more, as results continue to be announced. In just a few years, the Sadrists have matured from a fragmented militant movement that fought several fierce battles against U.S. and Iraqi forces to one of the most politically astute forces in the country.

"We've won about 40 seats, give or take a little," said Nassar al Rubaiye, a Sadr-allied lawmaker who won a seat in the southern province of Najaf. "We plan to claim our share of executive authority."

That's worrisome news not only for Washington, but also for many in Baghdad. The Sadrists' previous political participation was marked by walkouts, resignations and uprisings, leaving even their potential partners wary of their reliability in office. It doesn't help that one of their top vote getters is Hakim al Zamili, a former deputy health minister who was detained by U.S. forces and widely accused of fielding death squads in the days of sectarian war.

- Cabinet members, security officials and well-known politicians are out.

Some sitting cabinet members so far have failed to win seats, including the ministers of planning and defense, both Sunnis. The current interior minister Jawad Bolani, a Shiite, is about 7,000 votes short of the electoral threshold, an embarrassment for a man who oversees at least half a million Iraqi security forces.

Former national security advisers Muawafak al Rubaie and Qassem Daoud, both Shiites, so far have failed to win seats, along with former parliamentary speakers Mahmoud Mashadani and Hajim al Hassani, both Sunnis.

"The only logical explanation for the big losses of those politicians is poor performance," said Nabil Mohammed Salim, a political science professor and Allawi-allied candidate who also failed to win a seat. "They should've just avoided the embarrassment by not running. Their performance in office was so poor it showed an actual disdain for the people."

Other prominent figures who failed to win seats include: Iranian-backed Shiite clerics Homam Hamoodi and Jalaladin al Sagheer; Mithal al Alusi, a secular and outspoken Sunni who was widely criticized for making trips to Israel; and Ahmed Radhi, the soccer star-turned-politician best known for scoring Iraq's only goal in the 1986 World Cup.

Iraq's storied Communist Party, which was founded in 1934 and suffered heavily under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, failed to land a single seat throughout Iraq.

(Dulaimy is a special correspondent in Baghdad. Iraqi special correspondents Laith Hammoudi in Baghdad, Yaseen Taha in Suleimaniyah and a reporter in Baquba who can't be named for security reasons.)


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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq