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Sistani's Shia coalition surges ahead in poll

WITH MORE than three million votes counted, the United Iraqi Alliance, whose leaders have close ties to Iran, was sweeping ahead of its nearest rival in the poll in Iraq. The Alliance, a largely Shia coalition cobbled together by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has won more than two- thirds of the 3.3 million votes counted so far, the election commission said yesterday.

The two most powerful parties in the coalition are the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Dawa, religiously based parties supported by Iran, with whom they were allied during the 1980- 88 Iran-Iraq war.

The first votes showed that, admittedly in Shia provinces as well as Baghdad, the Alliance was out-polling the slate put forward by Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, by three votes to one. The Iraqi List, the coalition of Mr Allawi, is so far doing less well than had been expected. He has largely supported the US in its hostility to Iran, complaining that it was interfering in Iraqi affairs. He portrayed himself during the campaign as a tough secular candidate capable of restoring order in Iraq. Mr Allawi's coalition has received 580,000 votes.

The new election figures represented partial returns from 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces, said Hamdiyah al-Husseini, an election commission official. All 10 provinces have heavy Shia populations, and the Alliance had been expected to run strong in those areas. "The Shia coalition had the right strategy," said an Iraqi political commentator yesterday. "They put all their energy in mobilising their voters and getting them to the polls." The Shia make up some 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, though long denied power.

US moves against Iran, or permission by Washington for Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, would inevitably be opposed by an Iraqi government reliant on the votes of religious parties. SCIRI, in particular, was long seen as being partially controlled by Tehran and the Badr Brigade, its militia, fought for Iran against Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.

If Iran does believe that the US is planning to attack it directly or indirectly then it is in a strong position to make the faltering position American position in Iraq even more difficult. "The Iranians would sooner fight in Baghdad than in Tehran," said one Iraqi analyst.

It is unclear how far the initial returns will reflect the outcome. One well-informed estimate suggested that the Alliance would win 120 of the 275 seats in the National Assembly. The number of seats will be based on the proportion of votes each faction receives. About 14 million Iraqis were eligible to vote, although the turnout in Sunday's vote has not been announced; 265,000 Iraqis abroad also cast ballots in 14 countries.

The Kurdish Alliance should come second and Mr Allawi third. But it is unlikely that Mr Allawi will survive as Prime Minister. The Shias who braved mortars and suicide bombers to vote will want change at the top.

More likely candidates for the post of prime minister are Ibrahim al- Ushayqir, 58 - also known by his nom de guerre, Ibrahim al-Jaafari - a doctor and leader of Dawa, who is a Deputy President in the present government. His main opponent is Adel Abdel Mahdi, the Finance minister, an economist who is a member of SCIRI, and was repeatedly jailed by Saddam Hussein. An alternative choice might be Dr Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist and pious Shia, who was tortured by Saddam when he refused to make him a nuclear bomb.

Ayatollah Sistani, by far the most influential figure in the Shia community, was born in Iran but moved to the holy city of Najaf in Iraq in 1952. He has always opposed the direct involvement of the Shia clergy in politics but supports an Islamic Republic, though not a theocracy as in Iran.