Challenger Edges Out Maliki In Iraq

Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's coalition beat out Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition by a narrow margin in parliamentary elections. That means Allawi's alliance will get a first shot at trying to form a government. Robert Siegel speaks with NPR Baghdad Bureau Chief Quil Lawrence.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Baghdad today, officials announced final results of the March 7th parliamentary elections and, surprisingly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not the biggest vote getter. As expected, no single party or bloc won enough of the 325 seats in the legislature to form a government on its own, which means Iraq now faces a long-term of coalition building. It's expected that should take months.

Maliki's bloc came second to an alliance formed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

NPR's Quil Lawrence joins us on the line from Baghdad. And, first, Quil, who are the big winners and losers?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, the real race was between, as you said, sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the challenger, former prime minister Ayad Allawi. And it was something of a surprise in the hall tonight when they announced the results, and we saw everybody sort of adding them up on the back of a notebook, that Allawi's coalition beat out Maliki by about three seats.

Now, that isn't really significant in terms of the coalition building. Neither of them won a huge majority and can really command a government into shape at this time. But it means that Allawi gets the first chance to form a government and that could be a huge advantage if he manages to stick with it. And it's something of a blow to Maliki because Maliki essentially lost this to an absentee parliamentarian. Allawi hadn't really been on the scene for the last four years.

And so, in some ways, for Maliki even to come a few seats behind him is a big blow to, certainly, Maliki's expectation.

SIEGEL: Now, I'd like you to remind people who Ayad Allawi is and where he drew most of his support in this election.

LAWRENCE: He was a caretaker prime minister when the occupational authority left in 2004. When Paul Bremer left, he turned it over briefly to Ayad Allawi. His history is - way back he was a member of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party. He later left was exile, was actually - survived an assassination attempt by Saddam's forces, and was then for many years in league with the CIA and British intelligence trying to overthrow Saddam. So he has very close ties with the West. Since then he's come back and he really capitalized on the Sunni vote.

He's a Shiite, but he's secular, and he managed to capture the imagination and the hopes of Sunnis all across the country. So, in a strange way, even though he's Shiite, it was still a sectarian vote where Sunnis all voted for him and Shiites voted for Maliki and the other Shiite lists.

SIEGEL: Now, it didn't seem very promising when Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, reacted to the official results by saying that he doesn't accept results showing that Ayad Allawi's group won more seats than his bloc did.

LAWRENCE: I would have to say, from what we've been hearing all week about Maliki's activities and his adviser's public statements, his statement after the results was fairly mild. We expected a much bigger sort of robust rejection. He just said that there's some processes, there are still some irregularities. Everything needs to check out legally.

But we really had feared with some of the things his adviser was saying that he would reject it outright and challenge the process completely. He hasn't done that.

SIEGEL: And does this have any consequences for the U.S. and for the nearly 100,000 American troops that are still deployed in Iraq?

LAWRENCE: Every sign is that they are moving out on schedule, but also these results mean that it's going to be a very long process to form a government. And if there are major crises during that time, it'll be happening as the U.S. is pulling out. Many people have said that they are worried that insurgents might use any of these long, drawn-out arguments, exploit them and make more of these mass casualty attacks we've seen over the last six or eight months.

SIEGEL: NPR Baghdad Bureau Chief Quil Lawrence, thanks a lot.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Robert.

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Challenger Defeats Iraq's Prime Minister In Election

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he would not accept the results of Iraq's parliamentary election i i

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Friday that he would not accept the results of Iraq's parliamentary election. Khalid Mohammed/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Khalid Mohammed/AP
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he would not accept the results of Iraq's parliamentary election

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Friday that he would not accept the results of Iraq's parliamentary election.

Khalid Mohammed/AP

A coalition led by secularist challenger Ayad Allawi has won the most seats in Iraq's parliamentary elections, narrowly defeating Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in results released Friday by the country's election commission. Maliki immediately said he would challenge the outcome.

Allawi's coalition took 91 seats; Maliki's State of Law bloc won 89 seats. The Iraqi Parliament has 325 seats.

In a televised news conference minutes after the results were released, Maliki said that he would not accept the final tally of votes from the March 7 election. The prime minister said he would challenge the results through the legal process.

His supporters had demanded a manual recount even before the results were announced, but the election commission said there was no basis for a recount.

Ad Melkert, a top United Nations official in Iraq, said the U.N. believes the elections were credible and urged all sides to accept the results. Those sentiments were echoed by U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military official in Iraq. Both praised what they called a "historic electoral process," and said they did not believe there was evidence of widespread fraud.

The election results were announced shortly after two bombs exploded inside a popular restaurant in Khalis, a town 50 miles north of Baghdad. At least 40 people were killed and dozens were injured, said Maj. Ghalib Al-Karkhi, the police spokesman in Diyala province. Another police official said one of the explosions was a car bomb and the other a suicide bomber.

The bombing raised concerns about increased violence as a period of extended political negotiations ensue, though there was no evidence of a spike after the election results were announced.

Since Allawi's supporters prevailed, they'll get to make the first stab at choosing the prime minister and forming the new government, which will run the country as U.S. military officials continue with plans to draw down the number of troops in Iraq. There are now about 96,000 troops in the country, and that number is scheduled to drop to 50,000 by September. All U.S. forces are slated to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

Months of negotiations are likely to take place as Allawi forms a coalition government. The Kurds, who are expected to win in the three provinces that make up their autonomous region in the north, and the followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are likely to play key roles.

Maliki had tried to distance himself from his sectarian roots and portray himself as a nationalist who helped to stabilize the country after years of violence. But his support for a ban on hundreds of candidates with alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party undercut support from Sunnis, who felt it unfairly targeted their candidates.

Sunnis threw their weight behind Allawi, a secular Shiite and former interim prime minister who has built a coalition from both Islamic sects. Allawi's anti-Iran stance appeals to Sunnis wary of Tehran's influence over Iraq's Shiite-majority government.

Maliki's advisers have warned against challenging the election results for fear of violence from the country's Shiite majority. Others say there could be a risk of renewed sectarian conflict if the Sunni minority feels alienated from a coalition government.

Iraq's Supreme Court must ratify the results for them to be finalized.

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