The Sadrist movement could have swung the vote for one of the frontrunners, instead they voted for someone else
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad
The result of the informal grassroots referendum carried out by the Sadrist movement to see who its followers would like as Iraq's next prime minister has done nothing to clarify Iraq's muddy post-election waters.
Had the Sadrists opted clearly for one of the two main contenders - the incumbent Nouri Maliki, or his main challenger, the secular Iyad Allawi - they and their allies could have tilted the balance decisively in favour of one or other of the top two blocs.
Mr Allawi (right) was slightly ahead of Mr Maliki in the national poll
As it is, they chose Ibrahim al-Jaafari - former leader of Mr Maliki's Daawa Party and of the 2005 interim government - who came out of the Sadrist poll narrowly ahead of Jaafar Muhammad Baqer al-Sadr, scion of a distinguished Shia clerical family and a newly-elected MP for Mr Maliki's coalition.
The choice of either of the two men would neatly pull the rug from under Mr Maliki, who came out fourth in the referendum with a mere 10% of the votes - while his chief rival, Iyad Allawi, came just behind with 9%.
That may end up being the chief upshot of the exercise - to give the Sadrist leadership a free hand, with popular support, to veto both of the top two contestants for the premiership if it wants to.
'Rough and ready'
It also frees them to withhold support from Adel Abd al-Mahdi, currently one of Iraq's two vice-presidents, who is the candidate of their alliance partners the Supreme Council, but about whom they are unenthusiastic.
There were no controls or monitors for the poll
He came equal-last in the poll with a scant 2% of the vote.
How hard the movement would push to have Mr Jaafari or Mr Sadr adopted as prime minister remains to be seen.
In certain circumstances, either could emerge as a compromise candidate. Neither belongs to the Sadrist movement as such.
As Sadrist officials admit, the "referendum" was more of a rough-and-ready opinion poll than anything else. It has no constitutional weight and is not binding.
It was conducted without controls or checks of any kind, and anybody could easily have voted many times by moving from one improvised polling station to another.
The Sadrists detest Nouri Maliki, who destroyed their Mehdi Army militia in 2008 and detained many of its followers, although he owed his office to their support in 2006.
Moqtada Sadr detests Mr Maliki for the crackdown in 2008 on his militia
Sadrist officials say they want to see Mr Maliki's alliance included in a new government, but they would clearly prefer it to be without Mr Maliki himself.
They also insist without reservation that Mr Allawi's secular-Sunni coalition must be included, because it attracted the bulk of the Sunni vote.
But the Sadrists, who have a strict Shia religious outlook, might find it hard to serve under Mr Allawi, a secular Shia, as prime minister.
They will certainly continue to play a key role in the intensive bargaining over the formation of a coalition government, which has yet to begin in earnest more than a month after the 7 March elections.
They won 40 seats in the new parliament out of a total of 70 taken by the third-placed Iraqi National Alliance which includes other Shia factions such as the once-dominant Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council and Ibrahim al-Jaafari's group.
Neither of the top two coalitions, Mr Maliki's or Mr Allawi's, could muster enough seats to govern on its own without including the Alliance.
At the moment, the trend seems to be towards all the four main blocs which emerged strongly from the elections, including the Kurds, teaming up in an all-embracing national unity government.
The Sadrist spokesman, Sheikh Saleh al-Obaidi, told the BBC that that is what his movement wanted.
The country's most senior and influential Shia religious eminence, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has also let it be known that he favours an all-inclusive government.
Under his guidance, the Shia clerical establishment (the Marjaiyya) urged the electorate to vote, but steered scrupulously clear of favouring one faction over another.
Even if the principle is accepted all round, getting the four blocs to fit together into a unified administration is going to be very difficult and time-consuming.
There is bound to be enormous competition over the top jobs and over the general balance within the government.
Agreeing a common platform that would be acceptable both to the secular forces of Mr Allawi, and the Shia and Sunni religious factions, is also likely to involve protracted wrangling.
There have been two recent attacks which have left scores dead
Given the undoubted influence of outside powers - the Americans and their regional Sunni Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia on one side, and on the other Iran, strongly connected with Iraq's Shia - there are several developments that might favour the emergence of a balanced and inclusive government in Baghdad.
The Sadrist movement sent a delegation around neighbouring Sunni states. It seems to have been well received in Saudi Arabia, where it met with the Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal.
"We wanted to explain our point of view about how the Iraqi lists can co-operate to build the coming government," said Sadrist spokesman Sheikh Obaidi.
"We wanted also to show that we understand that the Arab states have a very important balancing role within the regional situation and the Iraqi situation, and we want to measure this pulse very carefully."
By the same token, the spokesperson for Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya List, Maisoun al-Damlouji, confirmed that it would shortly be sending a delegation to Tehran for talks with Iranian officials.
Mr Allawi's relations with Iran have often been tense. Tehran reacted with ill-concealed dismay at his success in the polls, with some hard-line voices portraying it as the result of a plot by western powers.
All of these are preliminary background manoeuvres in advance of serious coalition bargaining, which can only get under way in earnest once complaints and appeals have been settled and the election results have been ratified by the judiciary, which will take at least another week.
Once it kicks off, the general betting is that it will take many weeks, and probably several months, before a government is born.
In the meantime, with violence apparently gaining momentum, there are fears that insurgents may try to exploit the delay to step up their efforts to derail the entire political process, as the Americans prepare to withdraw all their combat troops by the end of August.
Al-Iraqiyya (Iraqi National Movement): Nationalist bloc led by former PM Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia, includes Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, and senior Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq
State of Law: Led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his Shia Islamist Daawa Party, the alliance purportedly cuts across religious and tribal lines, includes some Sunni tribal leaders, Shia Kurds, Christians and independents
Iraqi National Alliance: Shia-led bloc includes followers of the radical cleric, Moqtada Sadr, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, and the Fadhilah Party, along with ex-PM Ibrahim Jaafari and Ahmad Chalabi
Kurdish alliance: Coalition dominated by the two parties administering Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region - the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by President Jalal Talabani