Secular challenger hails Iraq election victory

BAGHDAD: Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Saturday his secular political alliance is open to bringing any of his rivals into a governing coalition that can restore Iraq's place in the Arab and Muslim world after years of war.

Allawi's Iraqiya bloc came out the top vote-getter in March 7 parliamentary elections, edging out his chief rival, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who vowed to challenge the results. But with a razor-thin margin over al-Maliki's coalition, Allawi's road to regaining the premiership is anything but guaranteed, and a lengthy period of political negotiations — possibly punctuated with violence — likely lies ahead.

"The Iraqi people have blessed the Iraqiya bloc by choosing it," Allawi told a packed news conference Saturday at his headquarters. "We are open to all powers starting with the State of Law bloc of brother Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki."

Allawi's Iraqiya coalition won 91 seats to 89 for al-Maliki's State of Law bloc, riding a wave of support from Sunnis frustrated with the current government, which they say has incited sectarian tensions and is too closely aligned with neighboring Iran.

Allawi, a Shiite who has called for a greater voice for the Sunni minority that dominated Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein, has appealed for a broad coalition centered on national identity rather than religious sect.

The full election results, announced Friday, suggest millions of Iraqis are fed up with a political system that revolves around membership in one of the two major Islamic sects.

Sunni neighborhoods across Baghdad erupted into wild pandemonium after the results were announced, dancing in the streets and waving Iraqi flags.

But with the Sunni minority making up only about 15-20 percent of Iraq, Allawi's victory would not have been possible without at least some support from the country's Shiite majority, and he got it.

While the prime minister's bloc was shut out of key Sunni provinces such as Anbar, Salahuddin and Ninevah, Allawi managed to pick up seats here and there across the Shiite south and only lost out to al-Maliki by two seats in the key province of Baghdad. With only two seats overall separating his Iraqiya bloc from al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, those gains proved to be the difference.

"It's an anti-incumbent message," said Toby Dodge, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "In voting for Allawi, the people criticized the ruling elite, the incoherence of the current government, its failure to deliver on promises of a better life."

The next prime minister will lead a government that presumably will be in power when the U.S. completes its scheduled troop withdrawal from Iraq next year. Many in the West have feared that the U.S. withdrawal would leave a political void in Iraq that neighboring Iran would be poised to fill.

If Allawi were to gain the prime minister's post, he could allay some of those fears because he has much better relations with Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors than does al-Maliki, who was largely shunned by countries such as Saudi Arabia, who fear a rising Shiite-majority in their backyard.

Al-Maliki, the U.S. partner in Iraq for the past four years, said angrily in a nationally televised news conference within minutes of the results being released that he did not accept them.

Already he's launched a legal challenge that significantly muddies the waters during what will be protracted negotiations to form a new government.

Under the constitution, the president tasks the largest bloc in parliament with trying to form a government.

The prime minister, however, submitted a request to the Supreme Court for clarification on the definition of the biggest bloc.

The court issued what appears to be a nonbinding legal opinion leaving open the possibility that the biggest bloc could be a coalition formed after the election, not necessarily the largest coalition as it existed on election day. It was not clear what effect that decision might have, and already it faces challenges from Allawi's camp.

"The biggest winning bloc, even if it wins with half a seat, it would be officially asked according to the Iraqi constitution to form the government," Allawi said during the news conference. "The Iraqi people have praised the Iraqiya bloc and chose it as a base to start negotiations with other blocs."

With weeks of negotiations to go while al-Maliki's government stays in place in a caretaker role, many have worried political disputes that are not resolved in negotiations could spill over into violence.

In a harbinger of what may be in store, twin bombings hit a busy area in the town of Khalis, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad, just before the election results were announced Friday night.

The police spokesman for Diyala province, Capt. Ghalib al-Karkhi, said Saturday that 57 people were killed and 73 were wounded in the explosions, first from a car bomb that went off outside a restaurant and then from a roadside bomb just a few steps away.