BAGHDAD - The voting may be over, but the March 7 parliamentary election, viewed as a make-or-break moment for Iraq as it tries to emerge from decades of economic decline, dictatorship and war, is far from over.
Despite a fall in violence over the last two years, the oil-producing country remains a dangerous place, with daily bombings hitting security forces and citizens alike and Sunni Islamist insurgents such as Al-Qaida staging high-profile attacks.
With about 80 percent of the vote counted, Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc leads in seven of 18 provinces but trails former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's secular, cross-sectarian Iraqiya in the national popular vote.
Results are still coming in and the lasting picture, once results are finalized weeks from now, may look quite different.
With Maliki and Allawi running neck-and-neck, coalition building will probably take months, enmeshing Iraq in political horse-trading that may heighten insecurity if the wrangling among politicians leads to a prolonged political vacuum.
A deadlock may see increased behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Iraq's neighbors, with Iran on the side of Iraq's Shi'ites and Gulf Arab states aligning with Sunnis and pushing their own ideal coalitions. In this scenario, dominant political groups might seek a compromise candidate for premier who they view as malleable.
Analysts view a long squabble over the next government as a recipe for trouble. It took Iraqi politicians more than five months to form a government after parliamentary elections in 2005, and two years of bloody sectarian conflict followed.
If Iraq's dominant Shi'ite parties align and push Allawi to the side, Sunnis, who voted heavily for Iraqiya, could effectively be disenfranchised, a troubling scenario.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition made sweeping gains in local polls last year, using a nationalist law-and-order message to gain votes from Iraqis weary of sectarian politicking. He is leading in seven of 18 provinces at this point but his margins over a rival Shi'ite bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), in four of those provinces are weak.
While Maliki's image has been weakened by major bombings and a determined effort by former allies to defeat him, he still holds powerful cards. If State of Law comes out ahead, he can claim a popular mandate and it is unlikely the coalition will try to dump him, some analysts say.
(China Daily 03/18/2010 page11)