Patrick Cockburn: A step forward, but the Sunni minority still has the power to destabilise

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The election will produce a more legitimate Iraqi government than its predecessor, but it has also proved the depth of the country's sectarian divisions.

The election will produce a more legitimate Iraqi government than its predecessor, but it has also proved the depth of the country's sectarian divisions.

The final figures confirmed the victory of the Shia coalition, or United Iraqi Alliance, cobbled together by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, even if it was not the clean sweep some of the party leaders may have hoped for. "Our nightmare was a single party getting two-thirds of the vote," said Hoshyar Zebari, the Kurdish foreign minister. A two-thirds majority is needed to form a government.

The Kurds also fared well with a quarter of the votes. Of any community in Iraq they have benefited most from the US invasion. They have retaken territory from which they had been evicted. They are well organised, and the United States cannot do without them.

But electoral victory does not transmute automatically into political power. It is worth recalling that if any of the Shia or Kurdish leaders had tried to travel out of Baghdad without an armed escort they would have inevitably been murdered by Sunni insurgents.

The Sunni community very largely abstained. It is not only that a mere 2 per cent of people voted in Anbar, but in Nineveh province, of which the capital is Mosul, the turnout was only 17 per cent. Most of these voters were probably Kurds. Optimistic forecasts that the Sunni vote might be higher than supposed turned out to be propaganda. The five million Sunni Arabs can destabilise Iraq for the foreseeable future, just as the four million Kurds did in the past.

The Iraqi list of Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, at first did better than expected. He was well financed by the US and Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates. He had the advantages of incumbency. He hoped to win the votes of secular Iraqis, particularly the Shia who fear the religious parties. In the event, Mr Allawi's 14 per cent was a disappointment.

The almost inevitable result will be a Shia-Kurdish coalition though this may include Mr Allawi. There will now be intense negotiations on who gets what job. The Shia want to appoint the prime minister as a sign of their victory: the most likely candidates are Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of Dawa, or Adel Abdul Mehdi, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). In return, the Kurdish leader Jalal al-Talabani would be president and a Sunni speaker of the National Assembly.

The Kurds can block the introduction of sharia law, but they are also determined to institutionalise the gains they have made on the ground, particularly around Kirkuk and its oilfields.

The problems facing a new government will be immense. The old government failed to deal with the economic crisis. The shortages of fuel and electricity this winter were worse than ever. Many of the ministers have a reputation for corruption.

There is no reason to think a new government will be better.

The Shia, unlike the Kurds, do not have a cadre of experienced and efficient leaders. SCIRI and its paramilitary Badr Brigade has spoken of resuming the purge of former Baathists in official positions. This would lead to turmoil in the security forces.

SCIRI and Dawa are in the bizarre position of relying partly on Iran and partly on the US for their real power. They also know that their victory owes more to Ayatollah Sistani's support than to their own popularity. They will dominate a new government, but it is unclear if they know how to tackle Iraq's many problems.

The US now must deal with the sort of government it did not want to see elected. After the invasion it thought it could rule Iraq directly. It delayed elections. Eventually it agreed to them. Now it must cooperate with parties, some of whom the US was trying to arrest 18 months ago.

The election is a step forward but it will produce a weak government with an inadequate army, battered security forces and a corrupt bureaucracy.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

*After three days, the election results will be certified, provided no complaints about the tally are upheld.

*A 275-member National Assembly will be formed, determined by the share of the vote each list of candidates receives.

*The assembly will elect a presidency council consisting of a president and two deputies. The council must have the backing of two-thirds of the assembly, or 184 members.

*The three-person council will then elect a prime minister and a cabinet. The decision must be unanimous and within two weeks.

*The prime minister and cabinet will then need to pass a single vote of confidence, obtaining only a simple majority, 138 votes.

*The National Assembly will draw up a draft constitution by 15 August. Once drafted, a referendum will be held no later than 15 October.

*If approved, a general election will be held by 15 December, and the resulting government will take office before 2006. If the constitution is rejected, an election for a new assembly will be held by 15 December.

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