In this country, it would be called a stunning political comeback.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s bloc has won the most seats in Iraq’s parliamentary elections.

His coalition had two seats more than that of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, officials said, as they gave final results for the 7 March poll.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Allawi will return as Prime Minister, or that Maliki is necessarily on the outs. In fact, the kingmaker in these elections could be Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Iraqi National Alliance coalition will reportedly join an alliance with Maliki’s party, which could deny Allawi the needed slots to run the government. But Sadr could demand that Maliki not be made the leader of such a coalition, and he could call to accelerate the American withdrawal:

The State of Law could end up with over 90 seats, and the National Iraqi Alliance may well get over 70. An alliance would take them very close to the 163 seats needed to govern Iraq. State of Law says it is also working on an partnership with the Kurdistan Alliance, which would be needed to elect a president on the first ballot.

A Shiite alliance plus the Kurds recalls the governing coalition of 2005 and after, which cannot be good news for the US. Al-Sadr may well make his joining the coalition conditional on al-Maliki stepping down and an acceleration of the timetable for US troop withdrawal.

Al-Sadr, whose movement may get as many as 40 seats, will be pivotal to forming a government. He is a supporter of Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, and once called himself the right hand of Hamas. If he becomes a kingmaker, the Middle East will lurch to the Right.

Given that, expect Allawi’s bloc to be buttressed with US support. The Washington Post has a story about Allawi’s appeal with Sunni Arabs in the election:

Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite known for his willingness to use brute force when necessary, has returned to the center of Iraqi politics after receiving millions of votes from Sunni Arabs, a minority that has felt marginalized since Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. Political blocs led by Allawi and Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are neck-and-neck in a race that is still too close to call with 95 percent of ballots counted. Remaining results are expected to be released Friday.

Allawi and his political coalition won Sunni support in part because he is considered less sectarian than other Shiite leaders and was not in office during the vicious sectarian bloodletting that marked the first two years of Maliki’s tenure. With the U.S. military preparing to substantially draw down its presence this summer, many Sunnis voted with the hope that Allawi would restore some of their lost status.

“It’s the nostalgia of hindsight. Who would have ever thought that Allawi’s tenure as prime minister would look good in retrospect?” said Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 until 2009. “I think it does to many Sunni Arabs in the wake of everything that came after that. He has always had the persona of the nonsectarian political figure.”

I think you can see how this could play out. The Shiites unite to block Allawi’s ascension despite his coalition getting the most votes, the Sunnis revolt and sectarian anger hardens. Meanwhile more radical Shiites take control of the government, demand a withdrawal of US forces and openly ally with Iran. Either way, Iraq gets controlled by an authoritarian strongman.

That would be called the worst-case scenario. But I don’t think the US is in the position to influence it one way or the other.

…and Maliki doesn’t accept the election results. This could be a huge mess.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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