A coalition of Shia religious parties has won the Iraq election, taking almost half the votes and raising the spectre of Islamic law finding its way into the country's new constitution.
The United Iraqi Alliance, also known as the Shia House, took 48 per cent of the vote, winning 130 seats in the new 275-member national assembly, according to provisional results of the 30 January poll.
The alliance of Kurdish parties came second on 26 per cent, with the party of the US-appointed interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, finishing a distant third, with less than 14 per cent.
A two-thirds majority is needed for complete control of the assembly in a system devised to ensure that none of Iraq's three biggest communities - the Shias, Sunnis or Kurds - can rule without the others' co-operation.
Before the voting, members of the Shia list had been careful to assure worried Iraqis that clerics would not be given positions in the new government.
But members of the Shia coalition, emboldened by strong early returns, have already called for sharia, or Islamic law, to be applied in civil matters. This, among other things, could allow Iraqi men to have four wives at once, and limit women's inheritance to half that of men.
"Eighty per cent of Iraqis don't have a problem with Islamic law," said Adel Abdul Mehdi, the Finance Minister in the interim government and one of the Shia coalition's nominees for prime minister.
The coalition is built around two Shia parties with close links to Iran - Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). They have the backing of the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shia cleric.
The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, congratulated members of the new national assembly yesterday. Mr Straw said: "It is crucial for the future of Iraq that the full diversity of Iraqi society is represented in the political and constitutional process. Prime Minister Allawi and many other key Iraqi political figures continue to emphasise this point."
The election results will not become official for three days to allow for procedural challenges. The Shia coalition, which had been projecting that it would take 60 per cent of the vote, said it was meeting yesterday to discuss whether to challenge the numbers. "They will discuss it with the [electoral] commission," said Jenan al-Obeidi, a candidate for SCIRI. "We think the votes are more than that."
Ms Obeidi, who has not supported bringing clerics into the new government, said having less than 50 per cent of the seats would not be a setback, even though the Kurds, who have already voiced their opposition to sharia, make up the second-largest bloc.
"The Kurds won't be able to challenge us. They will have to discuss it with us," she said. Ms Obeidi also raised the possibility of pushing for a more federal state, in which different aspects of sharia would be adopted locally.
Faraj Haidari, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said the Kurdish parties would not accept sharia. "We are going to have civil law no matter what. If other cities want to have their own systems, let them do it," he said.
Mr Haidari struck a more conciliatory note than Ms Obeidi, saying that his members would reach out to all parties, and especially the disenfranchised Sunni minority.
It is believed that the prime minister will be a Shia, the president a Kurd and the speaker of the national assembly, a position of relatively little power, a Sunni.
US officials have begun exploratory talks with politicians from the winning coalition to try to gauge their relationship with Iran, a predominantly Shia nation. US diplomats have bluntly asked the leaders how a Shia-dominated government would react if Iran came under attack over its suspected nuclear weapons programme.
Further reports, pages 8-9; Leading article, page 30