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Challenger Edges Out Maliki In Iraq

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In Baghdad today, officials announced final results of the March 7th parliamentary elections and, surprisingly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not the biggest vote getter. As expected, no single party or bloc won enough of the 325 seats in the legislature to form a government on its own, which means Iraq now faces a long-term of coalition building. It's expected that should take months.

Maliki's bloc came second to an alliance formed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

NPR's Quil Lawrence joins us on the line from Baghdad. And, first, Quil, who are the big winners and losers?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Well, the real race was between, as you said, sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the challenger, former prime minister Ayad Allawi. And it was something of a surprise in the hall tonight when they announced the results, and we saw everybody sort of adding them up on the back of a notebook, that Allawi's coalition beat out Maliki by about three seats.

Now, that isn't really significant in terms of the coalition building. Neither of them won a huge majority and can really command a government into shape at this time. But it means that Allawi gets the first chance to form a government and that could be a huge advantage if he manages to stick with it. And it's something of a blow to Maliki because Maliki essentially lost this to an absentee parliamentarian. Allawi hadn't really been on the scene for the last four years.

And so, in some ways, for Maliki even to come a few seats behind him is a big blow to, certainly, Maliki's expectation.

SIEGEL: Now, I'd like you to remind people who Ayad Allawi is and where he drew most of his support in this election.

LAWRENCE: He was a caretaker prime minister when the occupational authority left in 2004. When Paul Bremer left, he turned it over briefly to Ayad Allawi. His history is - way back he was a member of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party. He later left was exile, was actually - survived an assassination attempt by Saddam's forces, and was then for many years in league with the CIA and British intelligence trying to overthrow Saddam. So he has very close ties with the West. Since then he's come back and he really capitalized on the Sunni vote.

He's a Shiite, but he's secular, and he managed to capture the imagination and the hopes of Sunnis all across the country. So, in a strange way, even though he's Shiite, it was still a sectarian vote where Sunnis all voted for him and Shiites voted for Maliki and the other Shiite lists.

SIEGEL: Now, it didn't seem very promising when Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, reacted to the official results by saying that he doesn't accept results showing that Ayad Allawi's group won more seats than his bloc did.

LAWRENCE: I would have to say, from what we've been hearing all week about Maliki's activities and his adviser's public statements, his statement after the results was fairly mild. We expected a much bigger sort of robust rejection. He just said that there's some processes, there are still some irregularities. Everything needs to check out legally.

But we really had feared with some of the things his adviser was saying that he would reject it outright and challenge the process completely. He hasn't done that.

SIEGEL: And does this have any consequences for the U.S. and for the nearly 100,000 American troops that are still deployed in Iraq?

LAWRENCE: Every sign is that they are moving out on schedule, but also these results mean that it's going to be a very long process to form a government. And if there are major crises during that time, it'll be happening as the U.S. is pulling out. Many people have said that they are worried that insurgents might use any of these long, drawn-out arguments, exploit them and make more of these mass casualty attacks we've seen over the last six or eight months.

SIEGEL: NPR Baghdad Bureau Chief Quil Lawrence, thanks a lot.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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