Iraq Elections Too Close To Form A Government

The votes in Iraq's parliamentary elections have been counted, and there is a winner, sort of. A coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won just two more seats in the new parliament than the sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But neither has the majority needed to form a government, and Prime Minister Maliki is claiming that he lost because of fraud. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Quil Lawrence.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The votes in Iraq's parliamentary elections have been counted and there is a winner - sort of. A coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won just two more seats in the new parliament than the sitting prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. But neither has the majority needed to form a government and Prime Minister Maliki is claiming he lost because of fraud.

We're joined now from our Baghdad bureau by NPR's Quil Lawrence. Quil, thanks for being with us.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Thank you.

SIMON: Been three weeks since the votes were cast by Iraqis at the polls; the results are finally out. But is a resolution any closer?

LAWRENCE: Well, much closer actually. We finally got some hard numbers. There had been speculation but now - and it was a very complicated process by which seats were awarded so you could get a general idea, but now we have really hard numbers that are pretty likely to last.

We had some challenges immediately from sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He says he's going to follow legal challenges to try and reject the result. But the U.N. and the American embassy have endorsed this result as clean and representative of the Iraqi people. This morning, we actually had the man who won the largest number of seats, Ayad Allawi, respond to that challenge from Maliki.

Mr. AYAD ALLAWI (Former Prime Minister, Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Ayad Allawi was also claiming that there were irregularities and he said that if there hadn't been these irregularities in the election, he would have won even more votes. So, we're waiting to see who is just rhetorically rejecting these results, and we haven't seen yet whether anybody is going to reject it in a way that, well, here in Iraq people are worried about, which would be some sort of action.

SIMON: Yeah. If the apparent results are upheld, what does Mr. Allawi's winning formula seem to have been?

LAWRENCE: Well, he is a secular Shiite and he was previously appointed by the Americans in 2004 as a caretaker prime minister. But he managed to rebrand himself really as an Arab nationalist and in some ways appeal to people who were sick of sectarian parties. And yet the base that he ended up winning was Sunni Arabs, and some of them very nationalist and quite sectarian.

So, he was also given a boost because just before the election there was a process called de-Baathification, which was considered very sectarian, where Shiites disqualified a lot of Sunni candidates, saying they were linked to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. And this people are saying now actually gave Allawi a boost because it made the Sunnis so angry that they actually came out in great numbers to vote.

SIMON: And can we identify any big losers, parties that were very discredited by the results?

LAWRENCE: We'll have to see, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, sitting prime minister, might actually be one of the big losers. He didn't lose to Allawi by that much - just two seats - and neither one of them can form a government on their own without coalitions. But the fact that Maliki didn't beat out Allawi across the country when Allawi has been more or less an absentee parliamentarian - he didn't even show up for any of the sessions of parliament where he was supposed to be a sitting member - and he was still able to come back and beat Maliki.

It seems that we've already heard some speculation that some of Maliki's allies might be looking for a different horse to back, even in the negotiations. Other possible losers, you might say Iran. Iran had backed some Shiite sectarian lists and they didn't seem to do so well. The Kurdish parties in the north did less well than they expected, but they're still probably going to be a key block in the government that is formed eventually.

SIMON: And, Quil, how does this effect the administration's plans to try and draw down U.S. troops to just 50,000 by September 1?

LAWRENCE: Officially, there's no change. No one here is saying that they're going to change this plan to draw down 45,000 troops very quickly this summer. But there are some questions being raised. If it does take months for them to come up with a government, you can have a lame duck prime minister who isn't maybe necessarily very happy with the way things are going. You can have a power vacuum, and that's something all the military officials here say is a situation that some insurgents could exploit.

SIMON: NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence. Thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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