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Shi'ite Muslims, Kurds big winners in Iraq vote

Religious coalition short on seats; Sunnis lose out

BAGHDAD -- Catapulted by heavy turnout among Iraq's long-oppressed Shi'ite Muslim majority, an alliance of Shi'ite religious parties won nearly half the vote in the national elections and will probably capture a narrow majority of seats in the new parliament, according to a nationwide tally released yesterday.

But the Shi'ite-led coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, which won 48.2 percent of nearly 8.5 million votes cast Jan. 30 in Iraq's first competitive elections in decades, will have to reach out to other parties to build the two-thirds majority needed to form a government.

A coalition of Kurdish parties took 25.7 percent of the vote, propelled by massive turnout that topped 80 percent in all three Kurdish provinces, potentially rendering them kingmakers. A slate led by the US-backed interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, took 14 percent. No other slate cracked 2 percent of the vote.

The results heralded a dramatic power shift in favor of Shi'ites and ethnic Kurds, two groups that Saddam Hussein brutally repressed, but almost completely shut out disaffected Sunni Muslims, raising the potential for future strife as the assembly drafts Iraq's new constitution.

Minutes after the results became public, Massoud Barzani, speaking for the Kurdish coalition, said in an interview that Kurds would insist that the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk be incorporated into semiautonomous Kurdistan, and that the Kurdish Peshmerga militia continue to operate independent of the Iraqi military.

Those are two explosive demands in the eyes of Sunnis, who fear that Shi'ites in the south and Kurds in the north will squeeze them out of the central government and assert increased regional control over Iraq's oil reserves, which are mainly in Shi'ite and Kurdish regions.

Violence and boycotts left turnout dramatically lower in predominantly Sunni provinces where the bloody insurgency is centered -- ranging from 30 percent in Salahuddin Province, which includes Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, to 2 percent in Anbar, which includes Ramadi and Fallujah. Sunni-identified parties won barely 2 percent of the vote.

Yesterday, leaders of the Shi'ite-led alliance sought to calm Sunni fears, pledging to form an inclusive government and bring in outside groups to help draft the constitution.

''We need a government of national unity," Hussain Shahristani, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance and a scientist who fled into exile after refusing to build nuclear weapons for Hussein, said before the results were announced. ''We are even more insistent now than before that it should be an exercise of unity and participation."

But many of those same leaders also have called for a larger role for Islam in Iraq, and a constitution based more closely on the Koran, a concern for secular and non-Muslim Iraqis as well as Sunnis who follow a different interpretation of Islam. In its campaign, the alliance claimed the blessing of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric, whose word is law to many devout Shi'ites.

The Shi'ite alliance will end up with enough seats to block the naming of a government it does not support, but not enough to dominate the legislature's proceedings. Support of a two-thirds majority, or 183 seats in the 275-member assembly, is required to name the president and two vice presidents, who then will choose a prime minister who must also be approved by the assembly.

Although the Shi'ite alliance did not clear a majority of votes, it will probably have a small majority of seats. Any party that did not win enough votes to qualify for one seat -- one two-hundred- seventy-fifth of the vote, or 30,750 -- was disqualified.

Only 12 of the 111 parties on the ballot reached that threshold. The votes that went to the other parties -- about 500,000 votes -- will be thrown out.

Then the percentages will be recalibrated, giving the Shi'ites nearly 51 percent of the seats. According to the current figures, the United Iraqi Alliance will have at least 139 seats, the Kurds at least 74, and Allawi's group at least 40.

Alliance leaders have pledged to shut out Allawi and name one of their own as prime minister, but Allawi thinks he still may have a chance as a compromise candidate if they cannot agree, and failing that is jockeying for some other prominent post.

Dr. Raja Khuzai, who is part of Allawi's list, said they will try to get some members of the alliance to defect and form a coalition with them.

But it would take many defections to shift the balance, and leaders of the Shi'ite list have been courting the Kurds assiduously, signaling that they would welcome a Kurd in the post of president, as the ceremonial head of state.

In the hours after the election results were announced, the backroom deal-making that has been churning for the past two weeks since partial results leaked out spilled out onto the airwaves.

Abdel Aziz Hakim, the cleric who was the top candidate on the United Iraqi Alliance list, said on Iraqiya television channel last night that he would welcome Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as president.

Minutes later, Allawi appeared on the same channel, saying he would like to see a Kurd as president or even prime minister.

US officials congratulated Iraqis and welcomed the politicking.

''That's really part of that democracy that we're all so happy that they're working toward," Senate majority leader Bill Frist said.

''I congratulate every candidate who stood for election and those who will take office once the results are certified," President Bush said in a statement.

Turnout, which many had viewed as a measure of Iraqis' confidence in the elections and in security, was 58 percent of the country's 14.7 million eligible voters, slightly under the 60 percent the electoral commission had predicted.

But the turnout in Sunni areas was disappointing, especially after the United States waged intense battles to drive out insurgents and make those areas safe for elections, in Samarra and particularly in Fallujah.

In Anbar Province, which includes Fallujah, only 13,893 people cast allots -- 2 percent of eligible voters. In Fallujah, US troops are now largely in control, but most people are still living elsewhere as refugees, and in neighboring Ramadi, violence continues to rage and almost no one voted. In Samarra's province, Salahuddin, turnout was 29 percent, and in Nineveh, home to restive Mosul, 17 percent voted.

In Baghdad, one of the most evenly mixed areas of the country, 51 percent of eligible voters cast their votes.

Mohammed Bashar of the Association of Islamic Scholars, an outspoken Sunni group close to Ba'athists and insurgents that had called for Iraqis to shun the electoral process since the timetable for elections was announced last summer, told Al-Jazeera television that the uneven turnout and lack of international monitors undermined the elections.

''Boycotting the election does not mean that the boycotter will renounce his rights," he said.

By contrast, turnout in mostly Shi'ite provinces ranged from 61 percent to 72 percent.

Meanwhile some Sunnis promised to mobilize for better results in December, when a permanent government will be elected under the constitution.

Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni elder statesman who strongly resisted campaigning on ethnic grounds and fell short of winning a seat, sounded a new note, saying he would work to bring Sunnis together in a united bloc to ensure their representation.

Some Sunni groups have charged that voting irregularities, such as the lack of sufficient ballot papers in Sunni areas, skewed the election. The electoral commission says it will accept formal complaints during a three-day period and certify the results only after the complaints are examined.

Mishaan al-Jabouri, a Sunni whose party is likely to win a single seat, said he believes Shi'ite election officials wanted to limit Sunni participation and pronounced the election ''unfair" and ''20 or 30 percent honest."

Still, he practically glowed as he declared: ''It's better than Saddam's day. . . . We're talking against the government, and no one's executing us, like before."

He blamed the Association of Muslim Scholars. ''They prevented 90 percent of Sunnis from voting," he said.

Other groups that won seats include Iraqis, a list led by Sunni interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, with at least five seats, and the Iraqi Turkmen Front, with three seats.

A party led by Fatah al-Sheikh, an ally of rebellious Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, won at least two seats. Abdelhadi Al-Daraji, a spokesman for Sadr, declared last night that Sadr's movement would take part in writing the constitution.

Globe staff writer Thanassis Cambanis contributed from Sulaymaniyah.

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