Shiites look to coalition after Sunni gains in Iraqi elections

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Shiite religious parties captured the biggest number of parliament seats in last month's election but not enough to govern without partners, according to results released yesterday. Sunni Arabs scored major gains, offering hope that politics can eventually calm the Sunni insurgency.

The announcement by the election commission launched a period of tough bargaining among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions to form a government, which US officials hope can win the trust of the disaffected Sunni Arab minority so US and other foreign troops can go home.

Those hopes were buoyed by a threefold increase in the number of Sunni Arabs in parliament, a move that increases their chances for important posts in the new government. Many Sunni Arabs boycotted the January 2005 election, enabling Shiites and Kurds to dominate the government - sharpening sectarian tensions and fueling the insurgency.

"Iraq is in a very delicate situation and has problems with foreign forces, so we need a government of national unity that should include the Shiite list, Kurdish coalition and the Sunnis," Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said. "When everyone is together, the problems will be less."

However, the results of the Dec. 15 balloting also affirmed the power of religiously based politics in a country wracked by sectarian violence.

An avowedly sectarian ticket headed by Ayad Allawi lost seats, although the former interim prime minister himself won election. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a sectarian Shiite once seen as America's choice to rule after Saddam Hussein, failed to win a seat.

According to the results, which must be certified within two weeks, the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance won 128 of the 275 seats, down from the 146 it held in the outgoing parliament, Two major Sunni Arab groups took a total of 55 seats. Only 17 Sunni Arabs were in the old legislature.

Some Sunni gains were at the expense of the Kurds. An alliance of two Kurdish parties, allied with the Shiites in the outgoing government, won 53 seats, down from the 75 they held in the old parliament. Minor parties accounted for the rest of the seats.

Results were delayed for a month because of charges by Sunni politicians and others of widespread fraud and other irregularities. The government agreed to a review by a commission of foreign experts, that concluded in a report Thursday that the election was flawed but essentially fair.

Despite their gains, some Sunni politicians expressed disappointment with the results, insisting they had been victims of fraud. Nevertheless, they agreed to participate in parliament, and it appeared their objections were largely posturing.

"The dishonesty of the electoral commission is the main reason behind this disappointment because it is under the thumb of one list," Sunni politician Salman al-Jumaili said. "In all cases, we will deal positively with these results, take part in the coming parliament and government and present our challenges to the Iraqi judicial system."

An ally of Allawi, Saad Asem al-Janabi, blamed his ticket's losses on alleged favoritism in the election commission.

"This is a real disappointment for the democracy in Iraq because the electoral commission is biased, not independent and honest and all its procedures served one list and party," he said, referring to the Shiites.