Neighbors / Washington Bites Its Nails Over Who Will Lead Iraq

In Iraq's elections the State of Law party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lost, and he declared: "We will not accept these results under any circumstances." In a precedent-setting ruling, the courts said the task of forming the government would go to the person able to enlist the backing of the most parties - shaking up Iraqi politics even more.

The upshot is that Maliki, 60, who came in second with 89 seats in the 325-member parliament, and not Iyad Allawi, whose party won 91 seats, could be prime minister.

But the biggest obstacle between Allawi, 65, and the prime minister's chair is likely to be the De-Ba'ath Commission for clearing people belonging to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party from government institutions. It will decide on the "fitness" of six newly elected legislators (two from Allawi's party) to serve in parliament. Should the commission invalidate their election, Allawi's achievement is liable to be undermined further.

Even this legal-political tangle does not conceal an impressive victory: The Iraqi people will be the source of authority for the next government - and not America nor the Iranian administration. But the United States and Iran were active in the elections, behind the scenes. And both Maliki and two high-ranking representatives of Allawi's party separately visited Tehran - both sides apparently receiving Iran's blessing for forming a coalition.

The democratic elections in Iraq - one of the few countries in the Middle East where an electoral outcome is not a forgone conclusion - are in the meantime only a theoretical achievement. The important question is what government will arise and will it succeed in ruling the country?

After the election in 2005, Iraq sank into a prolonged civil war. Tens of thousands of people were killed when Shi'ite separatists, armed Sunnis and Al-Qaida terrorists fought one another and the U.S. Army. Millions fled their homes. Intensive military activity by the American forces and their cooperation with the new Iraqi Army brought relative quiet to the country during the past year and a half. However, it is too early to say the danger has passed.

The United States has been having a hard time deciding whom it prefers. In the summer of 2007, Hillary Clinton (then a Democratic senator and a front-runner in the presidential campaign race) argued: "It is necessary to replace Maliki and appoint someone who will operate on a less divisive sectarian basis." Then president George W. Bush, in fact, appreciated the leader. Maliki proved he could come out against separatists like Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who operated under the auspices of Iran; he effectively led the military engagement against Al-Qaida people; he cooperated with the American forces and in the end he signed a defense pact with them.

When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president, the criticism was replaced by esteem. The demands to remove him from power vanished from Washington but increased in Iraq, where he is accused of corruption and failing to develop infrastructure. His battle against Sadr, considered a victory in the West, is perceived as a betrayal by extremist Shi'ite groups, who will have to decide which of the election winners they prefer to support.

Allawi is a a secular Shi'ite, who during Saddam's era spent 30 years as an expatriate in Britain. In exile he planned Saddam's downfall with the American and British intelligence agencies. Upon his return to Iraq, he established the Iraqi intelligence services under the guidance of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. This does not mean his victory was achieved thanks to this cooperation but if he does put together a government, they will no doubt be pleased in Washington.

Both Maliki and Allawi have glorious pasts as militant oppositionists against Saddam Hussein's regime. Maliki fled Iraq in 1980, after Saddam issued a death warrant against him. Initially, he found refuge in Syria and then in Iran, where he spent several years and controlled subversive networks inside Iraq.

In the early 1970s, Allawi, a physician from a Shi'ite family, whose grandfather negotiated with Britain for Iraq's independence, was considered a Saddam loyalist. However, he refused to join Saddam's forces and chose exile, in Beirut and then in London. Saddam sought revenge. Hit men nearly assassinated Allawi with ax blows in 1978.

The election results created a complex political mosaic, and both candidates will probably have to agree to a string of concessions to establish a coalition. They will, for example, have to conciliate the 53-member Kurdish bloc, probably by committingto implement Article 140 in the constitution, which states that a census and referendum must be held in the city of Kirkuk. The Kurds see Kirkuk as part of their autonomous region, and all its inhabitants should be returned to their homes there - many of them were expelled during Saddam's regime and Arab population was brought in.

Anyone who wants to promise Kirkuk to the Kurds will face Sunni inhabitants who would see this as the betrayal of an asset that belongs to them. Many Sunnis voted for Allawi as a leader who will defend their rights, as compared to Maliki, who is perceived as a "Sunni-hater" even though he founded a non-sectarian party in which Sunnis are also members.

A shaky government is likely, one that will tough security issues security issues, like the exit of about 100,000 American soldiers, and will be unable to act in Iraq's development. And we have not yet heard from Iran, Baghdad's most important trading partner. In Washington, they are biting their nails. Democracy, it emerges, is a dangerous commodity for an occupying force.