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Yesterday's historic elections for the Iraqi parliament - the first that will freely determine Iraq's future government - produced a surprise: massive participation by the Sunni minority, which boycotted the last elections to such an extent that places had to be reserved for it in the outgoing parliament.

But alongside the Iraqis' great achievement, there is great importance in the nature of the coalition that will be formed after the election results are published.

The most likely scenario is a victory for the liberal Shi'ite bloc headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, which received only 40 seats (out of 275) in the last elections, and the formation of a strong coalition comprised of this group plus the Kurdish bloc, headed by President Jalal Talabani. According to reports from Kurdistan, the two blocs have already signed an agreement to form a coalition after the elections. Such a coalition would also be preferred by the American administration, which has received substantial cooperation from both these leaders, especially with regard to the military campaigns in Fallujah and Ramadi. The Kurds prefer to cooperate with Allawi in part because he heads an eclectic list that includes many secular, middle-class people who do not adhere to the religious line that Shi'ite Ayatollah Ali Sistani seeks to push, via current Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.

If, on the other hand, it turns out that the Sunnis indeed won a sizable number of seats, and that independent candidates also "stole" seats from the large blocs, the Kurds might have less power in this parliament. In that case, the future of the new constitution is unclear, as these elections were held on the basis of an agreement that the constitution could be amended two months after the elections. Any such amendment is likely to determine the character of the state, especially with regard to whether it will be federal, as the Kurds want.

Another possibility is that despite Jafari's expectation that he will lose, he might manage to form a coalition with the independents, including some former Ba'athists. That would further neutralize the Kurds' influence in parliament. In that case, Iraq would probably hold new elections in the near future.

The nature of the coalition will also largely determine whether the United States is able to set a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Iraq. A coalition headed by Allawi and based on Kurdish support would presumably be "security-oriented" and would favor a hard-line policy against rebellious districts. It would also try to repulse Iranian influence. In contrast, a government headed by Jafari, since it would include former Ba'athists, would be viewed as a national reconciliation government. Such a government might well restore relative tranquillity to Iraq, but would also tend to cooperate closely with Iran.