Iraq's election result: a divided nation

Iraq is disintegrating. The first results from the parliamentary election last week show the country is dividing between Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions.

Religious fundamentalists now have the upper hand. The secular and nationalist candidate backed by the US and Britain was humiliatingly defeated.

The Shia religious coalition has won a total victory in Baghdad and the south of Iraq. The Sunni Arab parties who openly or covertly support armed resistance to the US are likely to win large majorities in Sunni provinces. The Kurds have already achieved quasi-independence and their voting reflected that.

The election marks the final shipwreck of American and British hopes of establishing a pro-Western secular democracy in a united Iraq.

Islamic fundamentalist movements are ever more powerful in both the Sunni and Shia communities. Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi commentator, said: "In two and a half years Bush has succeeded in creating two new Talibans in Iraq."

The success of the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shia religious parties, has been far greater than expected according to preliminary results. It won 58 per cent of the vote in Baghdad, while Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister strongly supported by Tony Blair, got only 14 per cent of the vote. In Basra, Iraq's second city, 77 per cent of voters supported the Alliance and only 11 per cent Mr Allawi.

The election was portrayed by President George Bush as a sign of success for US policies in Iraq but, in fact, means the triumph of America's enemies inside and outside the country.

Iran will be pleased that the Shia religious parties which it has supported, have become the strongest political force.

Ironically, Mr Bush is increasingly dependent within Iraq on the co-operation and restraint of the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for the eradication of Israel. It is the allies of the Iranian theocracy who are growing in influence by the day and have triumphed in the election. The US will fear that development greatly as it constantly reminds the world of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Iran may be happier with a weakened Iraq in which it is a predominant influence rather than see the country entirely break up.

Another victor in the election is the fiery nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia fought fierce battles with US troops last year. The US military said at the time it intended "to kill or capture him".

Mr Bush cited the recapture of the holy city of Najaf from the Mehdi Army in August 2004 as an important success for the US Army. Mr Sadr will now be one of the most influential leaders within the coalition.

All the parties which did well in the election have strength only within their own community. The Shia coalition succeeded because the Shia make up 60 per cent of Iraqis but won almost no votes among the Kurds or Sunni, each of whom is about 20 per cent of the population. The Sunni and the Kurdish parties won no support outside their own communities.

The US ambassador in Baghdad, Zilmay Khalilzad, sounded almost despairing yesterday as he reviewed the results of the election. "It looks as if people have preferred to vote for their ethnic or sectarian identities," he said. "But for Iraq to succeed there has to be cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian co-operation."

The election also means a decisive switch from a secular Iraq to a country in which, outside Kurdistan, religious law will be paramount. Mr Allawi, who ran a well-financed campaign, was the main secular hope but that did not translate into votes. The other main non-religious candidate, Ahmed Chalabi, won less than 1 per cent of the vote in Baghdad and will be lucky to win a single seat in the new 275-member Council of Representatives.

"People underestimate how religious Iraq has become," said one Iraqi observer. "Iran is really a secular society with a religious leadership, but Iraq will be a religious society with a religious leadership." Already most girls leaving schools in Baghdad wear headscarves. Women's rights in cases of divorce and inheritance are being eroded.

Sunni Arab leaders were aghast at the electoral triumph of the Shia, claiming fraud. Adnan al-Dulaimi, the head of the Sunni Arab alliance, the Iraqi Accordance Front, said that if the electoral commission did not respond to their complaints they would "demand the elections be held again in Baghdad".

Mr Allawi's Iraqi National List also protested. Ibrahim al-Janabi, a party official, said: "The elections commission is not independent. It is influenced by political parties and by the government." But while there was probably some fraud and intimidation, the results of the election mirror the way in which the Shia majority in Iraq is systematically taking over the levers of power. Shia already control the ministry of the interior with 110,000 police and paramilitary units and most of the troops in the 80,000-strong army being trained by the US are Shia.

Mr Khalilzad said yesterday: "You can't have someone who is regarded as sectarian, for example, as Minister of the Interior." This is a not so-veiled criticism of the present minister, Bayan Jabr, a leading member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shia party. He is accused of running death squads and torture centres whose victims are Sunni Arabs.

It is unlikely that the Shia religious parties and militias will tolerate any rollback in their power. "They feel their day has come," said Mr Attiyah.

For six months the Shia have ruled Iraq in alliance with the Kurds. Kurdish leaders are not happy with the way this government has worked. The Kurds, supported by the US, will now try to dilute Shia control of government by bringing in Sunni ministers and Mr Allawi. But one Kurdish leader said: "We have a strategic alliance with the Shia religious parties we would be unwise to break."

The elections are also unlikely to see a diminution in armed resistance to the US by the Sunni community. Insurgent groups have made clear that they see winning seats in parliament as the opening of another front.

The break-up of Iraq has been brought closer by the election. The great majority of people who went to the polls voted as Shia, Sunni or Kurds - and not as Iraqis. The forces pulling Iraq apart are stronger than those holding it together. The election, billed by Mr Bush and Mr Blair as the birth of a new Iraqi state may in fact prove to be its funeral.

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