BAGHDAD — A strong showing by Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority gave secular Shiite politician Ayad Allawi the narrow lead that he needed to win a landmark parliamentary election over incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, according to results released Friday by the Iraqi election commission.
Allawi's mixed-sect Iraqiya coalition won 91 of the next parliament's 325 seats, compared with 89 for Maliki's State of Law bloc, the core of which is his Shiite conservative Dawa Party.
As Allawi supporters danced and unleashed celebratory gunfire in Baghdad and western Sunni-majority cities, a stone-faced Maliki appeared on live television to repeat his demand for a recount and assert that the tally released Friday "is not final."
"We do not accept these results," Maliki said, flanked by members of his coalition.
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Just two hours before the long-awaited announcement, twin bombings ripped through a crowded marketplace in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, killing 42 people and wounding at least 65 others in an illustration of the still-fragile security situation the next government will inherit as U.S. forces prepare for a full withdrawal by the end of next year.
After Allawi's 91 seats and Maliki's 89, the main Shiite coalition — made up of Iranian-backed parties, politicians allied with militant cleric Muqtada al Sadr and former U.S. ally Ahmad Chalabi — came in a distant third, with 70 seats, according to the commission. The Kurdish Alliance, comprised of the most powerful Kurdish factions, won 43 seats.
The March 7 election results, which still must be certified by Iraq's highest court, mean that none of the major coalitions can muster the necessary two-thirds to name a president — the first step to building a new government — without an improbable alliance with a political foe.
While some analysts interpret the results as a chance for a real — albeit forced — representative government, other factions say the results appear doctored to avoid the domination of one sect or ethnicity.
"It means there was a plan all along for a national unity government. We're back to square one," said Ezzat Shahbendar, a onetime Allawi ally who defected to Maliki's camp in recent years. He worried that the next government would be weak and inert, a concern that was repeated by political insiders from all factions.
Outside Allawi's headquarters in Baghdad, dozens of supporters chanted, "Get ready, Allawi!" as they waved flags and pounded on drums. Allawi showed up and was quickly hoisted onto the shoulders of his cheering fans. Similar scenes of jubilation unfolded in predominantly Sunni areas, where voters celebrated not only the victory of their new standard-bearer but their own post-invasion political debut.
Sunnis boycotted the last parliamentary elections in 2005, a move that left them out of major political decisions and contributed to the sectarian bloodshed of recent years.
With this election, however, Sunnis proved their vote mattered. Sunni Arab turnout in disputed Arab-Kurd territories north of Baghdad dramatically altered the balance of power. Kurds, through their politicians and peshmerga militiamen, once controlled the provinces of Kirkuk, Ninewah and large parts of Diyala. Al Qaida in Iraq, the mostly homegrown militant group, exploited the ethnic unrest, winning some Arab support as the self-proclaimed defenders against Kurdish expansionism.
The results showed that Sunni Arabs can challenge the Kurds through ballot boxes, too. Kirkuk, the fiercely disputed oil-rich prize, is now split evenly with six seats for Kurds and six for Allawi's mainly Arab candidates — perhaps the biggest upset of the election. Arabs also won the majority of seats in Ninewah, home to the troubled city of Mosul, and in Diyala, where Kurds won just a single seat.
"Those who speak about and call for democracy are the first ones who turn against it if it clashes with their personal interests," said Saad Dawoud Hussein, owner of a cafe in Mosul. "What we've been witnessing these past few days with the objections to the preliminary results of the election and casting doubt upon the integrity of the elections are nothing but proof of that."
A joint statement by Army Gen. Ray Odierno and Ambassador Chris Hill, the top American military and civilian officials in Iraq, supported the work of election officials and international monitors, noting that no evidence of widespread or serious fraud was uncovered.
"We encourage all political entities to conduct talks on the formation of the new government in a spirit of cooperation and respect for the will of the voters, and to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric or action," the U.S. statement read.
The results ended a tense and drawn-out vote-counting process that was fraught with allegations of fraud and intimations of violence. Members of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, the parliament-appointed panel accused of partisanship and inefficiency in the tabulation process, stressed that they acted without bias and urged all parties to accept the results as fair.
"To cast doubts upon this performance and effort does not serve the best interests of the country or the public," Faraj al Haidari, the electoral commission's chairman, said at the televised announcement of the results.
In recent days, Maliki and his supporters had grown vocal in their allegations of vote manipulation and had asked for a manual recount, a move the commission rejected as unfeasible and unnecessary. Small pro-Maliki protests had sprung up in southern Iraq, widely interpreted as a warning of more unrest if the prime minister's bloc didn't end up in the lead.
Ad Melkert, the United Nations envoy to Iraq, also urged political parties to accept the results, saying the vote tallies were credible despite "imperfections and, at some places, serious issues." Melkert said the results of about 50,000 voting stations were checked at least eight times, adding that complaints were addressed, irregularities were audited and ballot boxes that didn't meet standards were thrown out.
"We have not found evidence of systematic failure or fraud of widespread nature," Melkert said.
(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa in Baghdad, Ali Abbas in Mosul, Jamal Naji in Fallujah and a reporter in Baqouba who isn't named for security reasons contributed to this article.)
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