Most media reports noted that former Prime Minister – and “secularist,” the reports never fail to add – Iyad Allawi won the Iraqi election, and they’d add some color about his political comeback and the hopefulness of a unity government for Iraq. They neglect to mention that Allawi’s party – which won by a mere two seats – became the favorite of Sunni Arabs fearful of a return to power for Nouri al-Maliki, and they really neglect the fact that combining the two main Shiite parties gets you to almost the majority needed to form a government. Rather than Allawi being in the driver’s seat, Muqtada al-Sadr – part of the more religious Shi’a Iraqi National Alliance coalition – probably will determine the next Prime Minister.

And Maliki has already begun making his moves. While Allawi is depicted as “reaching out” to smaller Shiite and Kurdish parties to form a government, Maliki has used the levers of his office. He has begun to disqualify members of Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition for their past membership in the Baath Party:

Iraqiya officials expressed concern Saturday that Maliki will use his position as head of a caretaker government during the appeals process and months of political jockeying to try to reduce the number of seats won by Allawi’s bloc. Dozens of candidates were purged before the elections for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath Party, with Allawi’s bloc losing the most people. A second round of 55 disqualifications, announced on the eve of the vote, could erode Iraqiya’s slim margin if the candidates lose their appeals.

He’s also using the court system:

Maliki appears to have begun using the legal system to block Allawi’s rise. On Thursday, Iraq’s supreme court interpreted an ambiguous clause in the constitution as saying that the largest bloc in parliament, with the right to form the next government, could be two or more groups that merged after the election. The opinion could allow Maliki’s State of Law and a rival Shiite bloc to claim the right to form a government first.

And he’s courting the fundamentalists:

No sooner, the article says, than the election tallies began coming in did the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki begin gradually releasing Sadrist prisoners who had been in Iraqi penitentiaries for years. Al-Hayat’s sources say that in Babil Province, orders were received from the government to release members of the Sadr Movement, in an attempt to mollify that group.

As well as repressing the members of the Iraqiya list:

At least four Sunni Muslim candidates who appear to have won parliamentary seats on the winning ticket of secular leader Ayad Allawi have become targets of investigation by security forces reporting to the narrowly defeated Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, according to interviews Saturday with relatives, Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military.

All four candidates ran in Diyala province, a restive mainly Sunni area north of Baghdad. One candidate who won more than 28,000 votes is being held incommunicado in a Baghdad jail, two other winners are on the run and the whereabouts of the fourth, a woman, are unknown.

Maliki alluded to the cases in his televised refusal Friday to accept a loss in the March 7 parliamentary elections, saying of unnamed rival candidates: “What would happen if some of them are in prison now on terror accusations and they participated in the elections and might win?”

Today, we learned that a roadside bomb trageted a member of the Allawi list.

None of this may prevent Maliki from being deposed. The Iraqi National Alliance broke from Maliki’s State of Law Party because of the Iraqi military’s incursions into the Shiite south against the Mahdi Army, and Sadrists may seek Maliki’s removal as a condition of their support. The Sadrist’s main goal appears to be “national sovereignty” – i.e. accelerating the US troop withdrawals from Iraq. The US exit will almost surely increase Iran’s stature in Iraq; they reportedly tried to broker a quick deal for a Shiite-only government as recently as this week.

Juan Cole has the best read on this situation, which I consider a bit precarious. Sunni support for Allawi, a Shiite, represented their attempt to re-enter politics. If that attempt is rebuffed, or perceived to be stolen from them despite a victory at the polls, sectarian violence could return in a rush. Allawi’s party HQ in Karbala was burned to the ground on Saturday, suggesting that the violence could come from both sides.

The election is taking place after the voting in Iraq. And if the Sadrists really are the kingmakers, US troops could be pushed out of the country on a faster schedule.

David Dayen

David Dayen