PM al-Maliki emerges as frontrunner after Iraq vote

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Shi’ite leader who helped ease Iraq’s deadly sectarian conflict, emerged on Monday as a frontrunner after an election seen as a test of the nation’s young democracy.

The key estimates from the Baghdad region, which could swing the results of the vote, were not yet available but local officials said al-Maliki’s political bloc was so far leading in nine of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Millions voted on Sunday, braving rocket, mortar and bomb attacks that killed 38 people to cast their ballots in the second parliamentary election since United States-led forces ousted now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

President Barack Obama, who has promised to withdraw all US troops from Iraq by the end of next year, paid tribute to “the courage and resilience of the Iraqi people, who once again defied threats to advance their democracy.”

Al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance was ahead in Shi’ite regions, while Iyad Allawi, an ex-premier who heads the Iraqiya list, was leading in Sunni areas, said estimates Agence France-Presse obtained from officials across the country.

Official final results are not due until the end of March and, after that, it is likely to take months of horse-trading before a new government is formed as no political bloc is set to emerge dominant from the vote.

But early indications were looking good for al-Maliki.

He was appointed prime minister in 2005 as a compromise candidate and his administration, with considerable help from the US military, sharply reduced the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian strife that killed tens of thousands.

Al-Maliki played down his party’s Shi’ite religious roots in his campaign for this election and sought to portray himself as the leader who restored security to Iraq, a claim dented by a series of recent bombings in Baghdad.

Ali al-Mussawi, an adviser to al-Maliki, said that it looked like his list would get a third of the vote but that “it will be impossible for us to form a government without the help of other factions.”

‘Concentrating power in his own office’
One analyst, however, said that even if al-Maliki’s list was triumphant, his unpopularity among Iraq’s many political parties could prevent him from remaining prime minister.

“His relations with the Kurds, who play a key role in Parliament, are not good,” said Hamid Fadel, a political scientist at Baghdad university.

“The Iraq National Alliance accuses him of concentrating power in his own office and the Sunnis accuse him of launching a ‘de-Ba’athification’ process aimed at them,” he said.

Al-Maliki’s main challenger, according to the initial estimates, is Allawi, whose Iraqiya is a mostly Shi’ite slate that has campaigned on a nationalist and non-sectarian ticket.

The other leading list is the Iraq National Alliance, which is dominated by two Shi’ite religious parties — the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the movement of radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who led two armed uprisings against US troops.

It also includes former deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi, the man whose faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction encouraged the United States to invade Iraq.

Whoever forms the new government will be tasked with tackling still high levels of violence, an economy in tatters and a culture of endemic corruption.

Seven years after the invasion, much of Baghdad remains bomb-damaged, most homes receive only a few hours of mains electricity a day and lack clean drinking water, and a quarter of the Iraqi population is illiterate.

Sunday’s vote saw Sunni Arabs return to the ballot box in large numbers, in stark contrast to their 2005 boycott in protest at the rise to power of the long-oppressed Shi’ite majority.

Turnout across the country was about 60%, an election official said, which showed that most Iraqis were undeterred by an al-Qaeda threat to kill people who dared to vote.

Turnout was strongest in Arbil in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north, and in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk, which is at the centre of a battle for control between Arabs and Kurds. — AFP

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