These elections are a step forward - but the troubles of the Iraqi people are not over

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The results of the Iraqi election, which were released yesterday, answer some important questions. They show conclusively that Iraq's first national post-invasion elections were conducted successfully in many areas. That 58 per cent of the 14.2 million registered voters managed to cast their ballots, despite the horrific campaign of violence and intimidation throughout the country, is deeply impressive and better than many expected.

The results of the Iraqi election, which were released yesterday, answer some important questions. They show conclusively that Iraq's first national post-invasion elections were conducted successfully in many areas. That 58 per cent of the 14.2 million registered voters managed to cast their ballots, despite the horrific campaign of violence and intimidation throughout the country, is deeply impressive and better than many expected.

The results also confirm that the United Iraqi Alliance, which is backed by Shia clerics and which won 48 per cent of the vote, is now the most dominant political force in Iraq. The other clear winners are the Kurds, whose parties received 26 per cent of the national vote. These groups, which were so cruelly suppressed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, will be making the running. It is also obvious that the Iyad Allawi list, the vehicle of the interim prime minister, did badly, winning only 14 per cent of the vote.

But important questions remain unanswered. The Shia will claim about half the seats of the 275-member National Assembly, the body that will be charged with drawing up a new constitution for Iraq and choosing a government. Since the support of two-thirds of the assembly is required to make decisions, the Shia block will have to work with other parties. Will the various groupings in the assembly be prepared to make the necessary compromises? How, for example, will the Shia react if the Kurdish Alliance demands a greater level of autonomy, or even independence, for the oil-rich Kurdish regions in the north of the country?

The logic of the election result dictates that there should be a Shia Prime Minister and a Kurdish President, but it is by no means obvious who should fill these roles. Some have suggested that Iyad Allawi, a secular-minded Shia, would be good compromise candidate for permanent prime minister. But many Iraqis would feel it inappropriate for the man whose party came a poor third in the election to be given such a powerful position.

There is another question hanging over Iraq. What is to be done about the Sunni? Yesterday's elections results confirmed everyone's worst fears about the scale of the Sunni boycott of this election. Of this group, which makes up 20 per cent of Iraq's population, only a small number cast their ballot. In the sprawling Anbar province, the turnout was just 2 per cent. These elections have no legitimacy among the Sunni population of Iraq. How will the new government convince them that it will govern in their interests, when there is virtually no Sunni representation in the assembly?

And then there is the question of violence. In spite of the air of triumphalism that these elections provoked in Washington and some parts of London, we should not lose sight of the fact that Iraq is just as dangerous today as it has been at any time since the end of the war. On Saturday alone, the day before the election results were released, eight people were killed by car bombs, and a senior judge was assassinated. There are signs that Sunni militants are targeting not just American and British troops, but Shia civilians in the hope of inflaming the situation further. The threat of civil war hangs over Iraq.

Now these results are finally in, our Government must seriously consider whether the presence of British troops in Iraq is increasing the likelihood that Iraq will slip into the abyss. Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has argued powerfully that if the occupying forces in Iraq announced they were committed to withdrawing when the UN mandate expires in December, it would help shore up the new Iraqi government. Such a commitment would certainly make it easier for surrounding Middle Eastern states to lend their support to the new government.

These election results do not provide a resolution to Iraq's problems. But they do widen the scope of future possibilities. The Iraqi people now have an influence over their own affairs. The responsibility of the US and British governments is to support their democratic will.

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