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Analysis: Iraq's political chess game

The stakes are high for the US and all of Iraq in the waiting game for election results.

Iraqis count votes at the Independent High Electoral Commission headquarters in Baghdad on March 12, 2010, following Iraq's second general elections since the US-led invasion of 2003. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The official results of Iraq’s election could be months away, but there is a lot riding on what happens in the coming weeks as the vote tallies seep out and the still pooling allegations of fraud are investigated.

At the end of the day, this vote must be acceptable to all the stakeholders to ensure Iraq’s fragile stability. A collective faith in this electoral process is essential to a planned U.S. withdrawal later this year.

So far, the preliminary vote tallies for the major coalitions — Nouri al Maliki’s State of Law Party, and his more secular rival, Iyad Allawi, head of the Iraqiya bloc — are close. Already, allegations of fraud are flying, including reports of thousands of ballots dumped in garbage bins. The top United Nations envoy in Baghdad, Ad Melkert, quickly disputed the charges of widespread fraud while dispatching almost a hundred lawyers to investigate complaints. The corruption charges could be sour grapes from Iraqi politicians surprised by a poor showing, but the massive U.N. effort is an indication of the concerns ahead.

No one party or coalition is expected to win more than half of the 325 seats in parliament. Iraqi politicians are already working around the clock, bargaining to form wider alliances and shape a ruling coalition. The bargains and deals are a spectator sport across the country as Iraqis debate the calculations of Iraq’s permanent political class. The next government will be determined by negotiations as complicated as three-dimensional chess and as ruthless as musical chairs. This could take weeks or months and there are still many surprises ahead.

Social networking online has apparently even become part of this game. In a Twitter feed, Kurdish leader Barham Salih, a very experienced player on the Iraqi political stage and a politician who now serves as the head of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, described how Vice President Abdel Abdul Mahdi and Alawi were making visits to his region and ended the tweet this way: “Politics is getting more interesting!”

The Obama administration was quick to hail the vote as a success, an example of Iraq’s embrace of democracy and a settling of grievances through a democratic process. Despite at least 36 deaths and voting day violence intended to intimidate, the turn out was about 62 percent, which is worthy of praise.

However, the details of voting patterns paint a more complex picture. While the country has come a long way since the dark days of 2006, when disputes over political power were settled in street battles and by death squads, voting on March 7, 2010, was strictly along sectarian lines.

Traumatized by Saddam and torn into sectarian fragments by a U.S. invasion and occupation, Iraqis have yet to agree on a shared national narrative. Iraqis say they are fed up with sectarianism, a conflict that has divided neighborhoods and families, but in the voting booth, they displayed deeply held divisions. An Iraqi election turns out to be little more than a census in a vote that is institutionalizing majority rule. In Iraq, the Shiites have the most voters and therefore make the rules.