Leading article: Democracy and the need for peaceful compromise

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Iraq's parliamentary elections last week passed off at least as well as had been hoped and a good deal better than had been feared. The turnout was so heavy that polling stations stayed open an extra hour. There was no boycott by the Sunni minority as there had been in January. And, for the most part, polling was peaceful. Election day, in part thanks to draconian traffic and travel bans, was among the quietest and safest days in Iraq of the past year.

All in all, these elections constituted one of the more cheering developments in Iraq since the removal of Saddam Hussein. They offered the first hint that, despite everything, Iraq might with time evolve into something like a functioning democracy.

This optimistic interpretation, however, depends entirely on what happens next. And the early signs are not encouraging. Preliminary results released yesterday showed that Iraqis voted overwhelmingly along ethnic and religious lines. The divisions between Sunni, Shia and Kurd appear even more entrenched than they were 11 months ago. The secular party, led by the former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, looked set to come in a poor fourth in the new parliament.

The political system devised for post-Saddam Iraq requires a party to win a two-thirds majority in parliament in order to form a government. This makes a coalition almost inevitable. Even with the large majorities that the Shia parties are notching up in Baghdad and in the south, their United Iraqi Alliance will still need to join forces with others.

The response of the Sunni minority, however, has been less than constructive. The main Sunni alliance rejected the preliminary results, describing them as a "falsification of the will of the people" and complaining of fraud. If unspecified measures were not taken, they said ominously, there would be "grave repercussions on security and political stability".

The US ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, noted that all serious complaints about the conduct of the election would be investigated before the final results were released. Yet any delay is likely to fuel suspicions that not everything is above board. If there are to be investigations before the results are declared, the accusations - and the findings - must be scrupulously transparent. Otherwise existing resentments will be fuelled further.

Elections are the mechanisms by which individuals express their political will in orderly societies. Voting, though, is only half the test. The other half is accepting the results and - if there is no overall winner - being prepared to negotiate. This is the crossroads that Iraq has now reached: it is a situation fraught with danger.

It took Iraq's interim assembly three months to agree a government in the early part of the year. That government held together, just, but it also proved ineffectual. It was unable to make its writ run throughout the country; the violence continued; much-needed reconstruction was barely started. If there is to be any improvement in the lot of ordinary Iraqis, the country's parties and newly elected representatives will have to be prepared to deal with each other. The dire alternative is a resort to arms - the very outcome this year of elections was designed to prevent.

There is a message here also for the Americans. Having extolled constitutions and elections as the building blocks of democracy, it is hypocrisy of the first order to call into question the wisdom of the electorate if the results are not to your liking. Iraqis have voted. Preliminary results show a country in which ethnic and religious loyalties determine political allegiance. This may be perturbing, but it was predictable - and a result that Washington, as well as Baghdad, must accommodate.