Saudis hail Allawi's victory in Iraq with relief and hope

Ayad Allawi still has to form a government, but his win has been welcomed in Riyadh as someone less beholden to Iran than Mr al Maliki.

RIYADH // Saudi Arabia's preferred candidate in Iraq's recent elections is still a long way from becoming prime minister, but Ayad Allawi's strong showing in the poll is viewed here with a mix of relief and hope. For Saudis, Mr Allawi carries two strong expectations as he tries in the weeks ahead to cobble together a ruling coalition to succeed his main rival, Nouri a l Maliki, as prime minister.

One is that, as someone less beholden to Iran than Mr al Maliki, Mr Allawi will reinforce the country's Arab identity and swerve it firmly back into the predominantly Sunni Muslim Arab fold. The second hope rests on Mr Allawi's willingness to engage with Iraq's Sunni minority, even some former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party. As such, Saudis hope Mr Allawi will restore Iraq's domestic harmony by leavening its Shiite majority's new political ascendancy with input from Iraq's other religious and ethnic groups.

Mr Allawi's supporters are "like a rainbow", said Anwar Eshki, chairman of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies. "For that reason, he can get all the groups together and also work with moderate Baathis. And for that reason Saudi Arabia likes Allawi." If Mr al Maliki stays in power, Mr Eshki added, Iraq will continue to suffer from terrorism because "the Baathists - don't like him". But with Mr Allawi at Iraq's helm, "the terrorists will not find any group that will welcome them".

The Saudi government has not issued any official statement on last Friday's announcement that Mr Allawi had edged out Mr al Maliki by a wafer-thin margin of 91 seats over Mr al Maliki's 89 in the March 7 poll. Voter turnout was high, estimated at more than 60 per cent. Mr Allawi, who served as prime minister from 2004 to 2005 but lost badly in Iraq's first national elections in 2005, did much better this time because he won the votes of millions of Sunnis who sat out the 2005 vote.

The secular-orientated Shiite politician now has the gargantuan task of putting together a coalition to gain a majority of at least 163 of parliament's 325 seats. General Saudi sentiment was echoed in the comments of Osama al Kurdi, a member of the kingdom's state-appointed advisory body known as the Shoura Council. "There has been a lot of comfort in that the elections were so transparent. We are happy with the process - and with the results," Mr al Kurdi said in a telephone interview.

"This kind of competition between parties - is healthy. But the really serious issue now is the creation of a government," he added. That Mr Allawi was the kingdom's preferred choice was no secret, but its favour became crystal clear when the Iraqi politician visited Riyadh with a delegation from his Iraqiyya list just a week before the election and met King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, a visit reported widely in the Saudi press.

In an interview with the Saudi-owned Ashawq Al Awsat newspaper, Hassan al Alawi, a senior member of Iraqiyya, said Mr Allawi's visit to the kingdom and other Arab countries was intended to send the message that if he emerged with an electoral victory, Iraq's direction would change. "Iraq is now suffering from what is akin to a diplomatic blockade from the Arab world," Mr al Alawi told the paper. "We seek to immediately lift this blockade, and send a message to the Arab world - that the coming Iraq is open to the Arab atmosphere." Mr Allawi and the Saudi king, he added, had agreed that "Iraq must return to its Arab role".

If the Saudi government is keeping mum, the state-guided press, which reflects official thinking, has been gushing over the election results, calling them "historic" and "foretelling the return of Iraq to its Arab environment". More than one commentator has urged Mr al Maliki to accept the poll results. "He should have been the first to congratulate Allawi," wrote Abdul Rahman al Rached in his column in Asharq al Awsat.

The press may be jumping the gun, said F Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert who teaches at the University of Vermont and is in Riyadh on a research sabbatical. The results "must be gratifying" to the Saudis, Mr Gause said, "but if I were a betting man, I wouldn't bet that Allawi will end up as prime minister." Although Mr Allawi got the most votes, Mr al Maliki also has valuable cards to play in the next stage of coalition-building, Mr Gause said.

The poll results did, however, carry a good omen in that Mr Allawi's strong showing demonstrated that Iraqi nationalism still holds a strong sway, Mr Gause said. "In both Sunni and Shia communities, it's kind of a mixed result," he said. "Yes, there still seems to be sectarian sentiment, but within each community the more nationalist groups did better." Mr al Kurdi said he saw the same signal. "Less and less Iraqis are thinking of their ethnicity and sect, and they have more of a patriotic tendency now," he said.

Like Mr a l Maliki, Mr Allawi is a Shiite, but for years he has had good relations with Saudi Arabia, a bastion of Sunni Islam, because he is seen as a nonsectarian and strong leader who will take a firm stand against Iranian influence inside Iraq. "We would like Iraq and Iran to get together as friends, but we don't like to see Iran be a sect inside Iraq," said Mr Eshki of the Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies. "We need all people in Iraq to be pro-Iraq - We don't want Iraq to belong to any other country."

Mr Eshki said he believes whoever grabs the brass ring of leadership in Iraq that Riyadh will open an embassy there, a step long urged upon Saudi Arabia by Washington as a way to counter Iranian influence on Baghdad's political scene.