And the winner is ... Iran?

Initial election results suggest that Iran could wield major power in newly democratic Iraq -- not exactly what the U.S. hoped for.

Published February 16, 2005 1:11AM (EST)

The political backrooms of Iraq are buzzing with deals and intrigue as everyone from top politicians to ordinary Iraqis try to figure out what the somewhat surprising election results, released Sunday evening, mean for the new Iraq.

The facts are as clear as their implications are not. The religious-backed Shiite party, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, won nearly 50 percent of the vote, a bit less than expected, while the Kurdish coalition received more than 25 percent, exceeding their most optimistic scenarios.

With the handpicked U.S. candidate, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, getting around 13 percent in a sharp rebuke, the election puts about 88 percent of the 275-member National Assembly in the hands of just three parties. This also means that about three-quarters of the seats will go to key Iranian allies -- the Shiite, who have a long history of support from Iran in defiance of Saddam, and the Kurds, who have depended on Iran for economic and military aid in their own bloody battles against Saddam's Baath regime.

American neoconservatives and President Bush might therefore need to rethink the idea that free elections in Iraq will result in liberty, egalitarianism and secular humanism in the Middle East. The election may end up spreading the Iranian influence that much closer to America's Sunni allies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan.

But does this mean that the Shiite victors will emulate the Iranian revolution in Arab-dominated Iraq? Hakim, who fought on the side of the Iran in the Iraq-Iran war, quickly went public to dispel the notion that Shiites would revert to settling scores with an Ayatollah-based "democracy." "We believe in the need for participation and will seek harmony among all segments of the Iraqi people," he told Iraqi television.

One religious Shiite in Baghdad echoed the need to avoid making Iraq a fundamentalist state. "No, we are not Iran," says Abu Ali, 32. "We are a different people that want to build a better Iraq for all Iraqis." He then resumed beating himself on the back with a metal flail while chanting prayers to the martyred Imam Hussein, who 1,400 years ago was slain in Iraq in a fight between Shiite and Sunni Islam.

Another big winner was former neocon fave turned slick Shiite operator Dr. Ahmed Chalabi, who now considers himself a front-runner for prime minister. Or so he said on CNN. But Chalabi cannot be considered a viable candidate. For starters, he will insist on equal rights for women in Iraq and immediate diplomatic relations with Israel. Both conditions seem like an unlikely platform for election among Shiite religious figures with ties to Iran. Likelier prime minister candidates include Finance Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and former nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani, both Shiites. Yet in his public statements, Abdul-Mahdi had tried to downplay notions that religion will dominate a new Iraqi rule. For now, he says, Shiite leaders face "difficult and complicated responsibilities that require national unity and the wide support of the National Assembly."

When it comes to the prime minister, the Kurds benefited the most from the election, as the Shiite ticket failed to achieve the three-quarters majority needed to automatically choose the prime minister and president. Iraq's two main Kurdish parties formed a single voting bloc and will now put forward Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as their preferred candidate for a senior government position. In past statements, Aziz has indicated that he thinks that the powerful prime minister's post should be taken from the party with the largest share of the National Assembly, while the ceremonial role of president should be taken by a Sunni, to reach out to the disaffected Arab Sunni population that either boycotted or stayed home from the election due to fear and insurgent threats.

Talabani -- a Sunni Kurd -- might technically fit that description, although to the Arab majority of Iraq, he is a Kurd and his religion is secondary in this ethnic society. "The Kurds and Iranians have stolen my country," cries one Sunni Baathist, who prefers not to be identified.

To elect a religious Shiite government with separatist Kurdish coalition partners poses problems. If Allawi had won more votes, he could have made a strong case for remaining prime minister as part of a coalition and put a secular face on the government. And Adnan Pachachi, a longtime Iraqi exile, well respected in both Iraq and the West, could not translate that respect into a single seat in the National Assembly. Even interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, won less than 2 percent of the vote, further reinforcing the perception that Sunni Arabs refused to participate in the election process.

Pachachi, a former member of the Iraqi Governing Council, regretted what he called the disenfranchisement of Sunni Iraqis: "We were disappointed, naturally, because of the very small, low turnout in many areas," he told CNN. "It made it impossible for us to be represented on the National Assembly." Still, he said, the elections "are an important step forward in establishing democracy in Iraq. I do not question the legitimacy of the elections."

By Mitchell Prothero

Mitchell Prothero is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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