The Big Question: Is Iraq on the road to democracy?

Why are we asking this now?

Iraqis went to the polls on 7 March to choose a 325-member parliament to replace the one elected in 2005. The results have only recently been announced and are being challenged by the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It is expected to take four or five months to produce a new government and violence has not diminished. Bombings in Baghdad on Sunday killed 41 people and wounded a further 437.

Was the election fair?

The election was closely monitored by Iraqi and foreign observers and accepted by the UN as reflecting the will of the voters. Allegations of fraud have more to do with some political lists doing unexpectedly badly, notably that of the Prime Minister. He asked for a recount but his demand is comical in the eyes of many Iraqis because only Mr Maliki himself had the means of fixing the election by using the security forces, the bureaucracy and government funds.

His State of Law bloc won 89 seats and former prime minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition 91 seats, a lead which gives Mr Allawi the right to be the first to try to form a government. What is unfair is the arrest of Iraqiya members of parliament by police and military units loyal to Mr Maliki. There is also an effort to ban successful candidates because they once belonged to Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

It is not clear yet how far this attempt to fix the election ex-post facto will go. But Mr Allawi's supporters, mostly from the embattled Sunni Arab community, might come to think that the election has been stolen, giving it an incentive to use armed force to destabilise any incoming government in which it is not adequately represented.

So the election did more harm than good?

Not at all. Overall the election is likely to stabilise rather than destabilise Iraq. A crucial aspect of the poll was that the Sunni Arabs participated massively, unlike 2005, when they mostly boycotted the polls and took up arms against the US occupation and the Iraqi government. There is a danger that they might be marginalised again but it is more likely that this time they will get a share in power and the spoils of office.

Another important change is that the followers of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who fought the Americans in bloody battles in Najaf in 2004, participated enthusiastically and successfully in the election. They have every incentive to rely on their enhanced political muscle – they won at least 39 seats – rather than resurrecting their Mehdi Army militia. The election may not have produced an overall winner, but the four main coalitions – State of Law, Iraqiya, the Kurds and the Iraqi National Alliance, combining the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – all showed that they have strong support.

How does this affect American withdrawal by the end of 2011?

There will be little effect. The withdrawal is taking place under the Status of Forces Agreement signed by President Bush in 2008. Washington wants to pull out and Mr Maliki claims it as one of his achievements that the Americans are going. By the end of August all US combat forces should have gone.

But didn't Iyad Allawi win the election?

No, he won a plurality though many of the news reports gave a misleading impression of what had happened. Mr Allawi, interim prime minister in 2004-05, won most seats because the Sunni Arab community voted for him en masse. This gave him the five Sunni majority provinces north and west of Baghdad. He also did well in the capital, showing that secular-minded Shia voted for him, though most Iraqis voted along sectarian or communal lines. His success looked bigger than it was because in the 2010 election the vote of the Shia, who make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, was split between Mr Maliki and the Shia religious parties of the INA, which together won at least 159 seats or close to a majority in parliament.

The most likely outcome of the negotiations now beginning on forming a new government is that these two Shia parties will combine and seek an alliance with the Kurds. Mr Allawi's bloc, for all its apparent electoral success, will have great difficulty finding allies to form a government.

Does this mean that Mr Maliki will remain PM?

Probably not, because the Sadrists and the Kurds, two partners he will need, do not like him and do not trust him. The Sadrists blame him for his attack on them in Basra and Baghdad in 2008. The Kurds resent the hard nationalist line he has taken over territories disputed between Arab and Kurd and see him as failing to abide by agreements on how these differences should be resolved.

A condition for Sadrist and Kurdish participation in a new government will probably be the departure of Mr Maliki, though his political bloc will remain at the centre of government under a new prime minister.

Is not this increasing sectarianism?

Sectarianism has got worse because of the election. The purge of former Baathists was seen by the Sunni as an attack on them. The Shia parties played up spurious stories of a resurgent Baath party returning to power. The success of Mr Allawi in northern Iraq came from mobilising the anti-Kurdish vote. But Iraqi politics have always tended to run along sectarian and communal lines. The fears and hatreds stemming from the 2006-07 Sunni-Shia civil war will take decades to subside. The election may have highlighted these divisions but it did not create them.

Has the election made a conflict between Kurds and Arabs more or less likely?

The Kurds suffered a blow because they did less well than they expected in the disputed territories. But they will be an essential building block in any new government.

What is the role of foreign powers in all this?

Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states supported Mr Allawi with money. They remain suspicious of an Iraq dominated by Shia Arabs and Kurds. Iran backed the Shia parties, notably the INA. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, its closest ally, did poorly, partly because it is seen as an Iranian pawn, but the Sadrists did well.

The importance of Iranian influence was underlined by the speed with which party leaders visited Tehran after the poll. American influence is diminishing as US troops withdraw and because President Obama does not want to be dragged into day-to-day tutelage over Iraqi politics.

Will Iraq become more violent and unstable because of the election?

Yes...

* Divisions between Sunni and Shia have deepened



* Tensions between Arabs and Kurds have sharpened



* There is no sign of a let-up in attacks by al-Qa'ida in Iraq

No...

* All sides took part in the election



* Arabs and Kurds both have a lot to lose if differences turn to shooting



* Al-Qa'ida in Iraq can launch high-profile attacks but is weaker than it was

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