Iraqi court seals secular bloc’s election margin but Shiites still likely to form government

By Lara Jakes, AP
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Iraqi court seals secular bloc’s election margin

BAGHDAD — A Sunni-backed secular alliance that challenged Iraq’s top Shiite leadership in parliamentary elections won a Supreme Court ruling Tuesday sealing its narrow edge over its closest rival, but still faced daunting odds of forming a government.

The court order, which cannot be appealed, begins a 15-day countdown for seating the legislature nearly three months after its members were elected in the March 7 vote.

It still could take weeks, if not months, for parliament to select a prime minister and government ministers, raising fears that extremist groups may incite major violence by exploiting security gaps in the wake of Iraqi political deadlock and U.S. troop withdrawal.

Following a barrage of ballot recounts, charges of fraud and other legal challenges, a Supreme Court review concluded that initial election results awarding 91 seats to the secular Iraqiya alliance were “reliable,” Chief Judge Midhat al-Mahmoud told a news conference Tuesday.

Iraqiya is led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister and secular Shiite, and is heavily backed by Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni Arab minority. It won two more seats than the State of Law coalition led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

None of Iraq’s major political coalitions captured an outright majority in the 325-seat legislature, leaving the country without a clear election winner. That has set off scrambling by al-Maliki and Iraq’s other politicians to join forces with competing alliances and secure enough seats to control parliament and, in turn, the government.

Negotiations likely will stall the government for at least another six weeks, and possibly for months more, said Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq war expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“This is not going to be quick,” Cordesman said after the court ruling was announced. “Given the politics involved, an awful lot of the positions are likely to change. … It’s easy to talk about a national unity government. The real question is whether you can actually build one.”

Last month, State of Law agreed to form a so-called “super-Shiite” coalition with the religious Iraqi National Alliance dominated by supporters of powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who lives in neighboring Iran. It is widely believed that Iran, a Shiite country, played a role in pushing through the deal in an attempt to block Iraqiya and its Sunni supporters from governing Iraq.

Shiite coalitions have ruled Iraq since the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime but were pressured by the U.S. into accommodating the Sunnis. Sunni anger over being largely excluded from government fueled sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war several years ago. The U.S. will no longer have such leverage as its military role fades.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the election wrangling proves that Iraqis want to use the political process to solve differences. It was a pointed reference to fears that the impasse would lead to violence.

With the vote results now certified, “we call on Iraq’s political leaders to move forward without delay to form an inclusive and representative government that will work on behalf of the Iraqi people,” Clinton said in a statement.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani now has 15 days to call parliament to its first session for lawmakers to elect a speaker and a new president. The new president will task the legislature’s largest political bloc with forming the new government.

But the definition of what makes up the largest bloc is hotly debated, and likely will be the next battle between Iraqiya and al-Maliki.

Iraqiya leaders have claimed they should have the first crack at forming the government because they won the most seats on election day. But a March court opinion opened the door to the possibility that the largest bloc could be one created after the election through negotiations — meaning that if the super-Shiite coalition and its 159 seats holds together, it could have the right to form the government.

The chief judge reinforced that possibility Tuesday.

However, the Shiite coalition of State of Law and INA would still need more allies to make up the four seats it would need to form a majority.

After Tuesday’s court ruling, a leading Iraqiya lawmaker demanded that backroom political wrangling not usurp the vote results that handed the slim victory to Allawi’s alliance.

“We can’t predict what will happen tomorrow, but I think that we will stay the biggest bloc because this is the will of the Iraqi people who voted for us,” said Hussein al-Shaalan, a Shiite. He said Iraqiya would ramp up its own negotiations with other political alliances, and would respect newly formed coalitions that are deemed legal.

Al-Maliki was in Iraq’s north Tuesday, speaking to Kurdish lawmakers whose support he will need for an undisputed claim to power. It was his first trip to the Kurdish region since the election, and was widely viewed as wooing potential partners, although al-Maliki did not mention the court’s ruling in a speech to the lawmakers.

Iraqi Oil Minister and senior State of Law member Hussain al-Shahristani said the alliance would respect the ruling even if it remains convinced it was robbed of seats.

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