Baghdad // The announcement of Iraq's election results, giving challenger Ayad Allawi a narrow victory over the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, has done little to dispel huge uncertainties over the country's future. Legal challenges to the outcome are likely and Mr al Maliki is adamant he will build the ruling coalition. With 100 per cent of the vote counted, Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya bloc won 91 seats in parliament, two more than Mr al Maliki's State of Law alliance. In third place - what is likely to turn into a highly influential position - was the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the Shiite sectarian list comprised of the Sadrist movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).
As the largest single parliamentary group to contest the election, Iraqiyya insists it has the constitutional right of being asked to form the government. Iraqiyya would then go ahead and form a government if it is able to attract coalition partners to give it a 163-seat ruling majority. Iraqiyya's claim has already been undermined, however, by a Supreme Court ruling indicating a post-election alliance between the State of Law and the INA would mean it is considered the largest electoral bloc, and therefore gets first option to form the government. Talks are already under way between Mr al Maliki and the INA to see if such a super-bloc can be built.
In what is certain to become a complex legal struggle, Iraqiyya is disputing the legitimacy of that ruling while at the same time Mr al Maliki is disputing the legality of the election outcome. The count, finalised on Friday, remains provisional until certified by the Supreme Court. Parties have until tomorrow to lodge formal complaints against the results. Both the United Nations and United States issued opinions that the election and results were free of significant fraud, something Mr al Maliki's State of Law coalition does not accept.
"We do not acknowledge the results and we repeat our demand for a manual recount," said a State of Law candidate, Khalid al Assadi. "We have reason to believe significant cheating has taken place, particularly in Kirkuk, Diyala and Baghdad." Kirkuk, Diyala and Baghdad are among the places in which Iraqiyya performed well, either winning or picking up substantial numbers of seats. In addition to winning outright in majority Sunni provinces, Mr Allawi, who ran a secular campaign, gained crucial support in Iraq's Shiite south, boosting his claims to be a candidate with truly cross-sectarian national appeal.
In contrast, Mr al Maliki, who ran a sectarian campaign aimed at the Shiite street, failed to win seats in Iraq's Sunni heartlands. Hani Ashour, an official with Iraqiyya, called on all groups to recognise the results and Mr Allawi's right to form the next government. "According to the constitution we won the election and that gives Ayad Allawi the position to build the next government, one that will run the country for the good of all Iraqis, not narrow interests," he said.
All options, in terms of possible coalition partners, remained open, Mr Ashour said, including a national unity-type alliance with Mr al Maliki. Aside from the legal challenges both to the result and the constitutional definition of the winning group, there is certain to be a prolonged period of tough negotiations over building a ruling coalition. With neither Mr Allawi nor Mr al Maliki winning an outright majority, both will have to find partners if they are to form a government. That gives the next largest groups in parliament, the INA and the Kurds, considerable leverage.
"The winner of the election isn't Iraqiyya or the State of Law," Ahmed al Khafaji, an independent political analyst, said. "It is the INA and perhaps the Kurds who have won. They can sit back and wait to see if Allawi or Maliki makes them the highest offer, knowing that without them, there can be no government." It remains unclear which group will be able to put together a ruling alliance, particularly one stable enough to run such a divided country.
Mr Allawi, a pragmatist with cross-sectarian support, has clashed with the Sadrists, the main component of the INA. Some Shiite groups also say he has gone too far in courting Sunnis, recruiting Baathists to his side. The prospect of a Sunni return to power may be enough to put off the INA and Kurds, both vociferously against the Baath Party, which ran Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The Kurds are certain to demand a high price for entering any alliance, with reports they will insist upon written guarantees over the future of their autonomous region and, critically, the disputed city of Kirkuk, a territory claimed by the Kurds and by Arab nationalists.
Some analysts say Mr al Maliki is better placed to make concessions to the Kurds and, given his close ties to Iran, is also in a better position to do a deal with the INA. Both the Sadrists and ISCI, the key players in the INA, have strong links with Tehran, in stark contrast to Mr Allawi's anti-Iranian stance. "Any alliance is possible. Allawi could get the Kurds and the INA, or Maliki could succeed in doing so," Mr al Khafaji said. "It would be hard to bet against either."
Baathists, considered the foundation of the ongoing insurgency, have warned that violence will flare if Mr Allawi is excluded from government by a broad Shiite-Kurd alliance, similar to the one ruling Iraq since 2005. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org