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Last Updated: Friday, 20 January 2006, 18:17 GMT
Iraq's Muslims divided over poll
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Baghdad

Iraqis watch the election results on TV at a coffee shop in Baquba, Baghdad
Many Iraqis question how inclusive the new government will be
It's been six weeks in the waiting and when the day finally came there were no real surprises.

Politics in Iraq has become a predominantly sectarian business - in the absence of parties based on ideologies, most people voted on religious or ethnic grounds.

And so while the country has always been proud of its Iraqi-ness, where people are not Shia or Sunni, they are "Muslim", divisions are emerging through politics.

Those fault-lines are the ones the insurgents are trying their best to widen.

National unity

So what is interesting now the election results are out, is just how inclusive this new government is going to be.

The United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shia Muslim umbrella group, did not get an absolute majority, but by going in with the Kurdish coalition they will be just a whisker away from the two-thirds of seats needed to sweep their choice of president into power.

The Sunni groups grabbed more than 50 seats between them, but that is still no guarantee they will be taking part in the coalition government.

These results will not be stamped "certified" until everyone has had the chance to take a look and is happy with the final results.

Participants have until Monday evening to lodge their complaints, and then it could be two weeks before everything is settled - by then the political hard talk should be well advanced and the new Council of Representatives should be ready to get down to business.

But those pressing for a government of national unity could be disappointed - the indications from Abd-al-Aziz al-Hakim, the top man on the Shia United Iraqi Alliance list, are not promising.

He told the BBC this week: "This is a democracy - there are winners and losers. There is the side that forms a government and there is a side that forges opposition."

He did not appear keen to hold out an olive branch to the Sunni political point of view, nor did he offer any ground on reviewing the constitution - the lever used to prise the Sunnis into joining the electoral process this time around.

Deal-making

So where does that leave the Iraqi Consensus Front, or indeed the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue - the two Sunni groups that pulled in 55 seats between them?

That will come down to the political deal-making, which has been bubbling below the surface for weeks and which will surface with renewed urgency now the results are out.

If the Shia and Kurdish bloc decide they will go it alone, along with a few smaller groups, there is little the Sunnis can do but set up in opposition.

And if they are not happy with their lot, it could have an impact on the insurgency - the violence was supposed to stop with increased Sunni participation.

An Iraqi woman walks past election posters
Political vacuums have in the past been filled by violence
The violence the electoral process was supposed to stop could continue to escalate.

That is not the only potential sticking point - even if the timetable for a new government is followed it could be three months before new ministers are getting their knees under their new desks.

It will not be easy to dish out who gets the best jobs even within a coalition of groups that have been co-operating for months already.

The worry that blood would be running through the streets as the insurgents made their mark today did not materialise, but there is still the danger that the longer it takes to bring in a stable government, the more damage they can cause and the further the country will sink into chaos before the new administration gets its hands dirty.

Most Iraqis still see themselves as united - for many years Shia and Sunni Muslims have intermarried and they do not want division in society, but that is where things are going.

It needs a brave government to stop that divide from growing.



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