Election workers in Baghdad carry a ballot box marked with red tape to signify… (Ahmad al-Rubaye / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Baghdad — With more than 80% of the votes tallied in Iraq's parliamentary elections and the race still neck and neck, hopes that the country might move beyond its deep Shiite-Sunni divide appear to be fading in a stew of sectarian politics.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who once campaigned as a nationalist leader responsible for restoring security to all Iraqis, is now falling back on his Shiite Muslim religious identity to position himself against challenger Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite popular with the minority Sunni Arab population.
Maliki's allies contend that he is the only acceptable choice for the country's Shiite majority, which suffered under the rule of Saddam Hussein and members of his Sunni-dominated Baath Party.
If Allawi is defeated in coming negotiations to form a government, it would be seen as a major setback for Sunnis, who have viewed the national elections as a chance to regain some of the privileges lost when Hussein was toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
With most of the March 7 vote results in, Maliki's slate leads in six provinces in the Shiite-dominated south and remains narrowly ahead in religiously mixed Baghdad. Allawi's slate appears to have won in five northern provinces with large Sunni populations that were once hotbeds of the Sunni-led insurgency.
A stable government is seen as vital to the future of Iraq as the nation prepares for the departure of American combat troops by the end of August and all U.S. forces by the end of 2011. Its last national elections, in January 2005, which Sunnis largely boycotted, helped ignite a civil war in which Sunni Arab insurgents fought against militias backed by the Shiite-dominated government.
Some analysts say the current election fight could push the sides back to that era if Sunnis again feel marginalized and take up arms.
Last fall when Maliki, seeking a second term as prime minister, announced his State of Law coalition, he boasted a collection of prominent Shiite and Sunni figures. The alliance sought to build upon his success in January 2009 provincial elections, when Maliki campaigned as a nationalist figure who had restored public safety for all sects.
But an increase in deadly bombings since August, and a round of disqualifications of election candidates because of their alleged ties to the Baath Party, has returned him to his earlier role as a conservative Shiite.
The Sunni population voted in droves for Allawi's Iraqiya slate, which included well-known Sunni lawmakers Usama Najafi and Vice President Tariq Hashimi, both of whom are seen as protectors of the Sunni community and the professional and business class under Hussein.
Now, with Maliki's slate leading in more provinces and swapping leads with Allawi in the popular vote, the prime minister's associates have been playing the sectarian card, labeling Allawi's coalition as anti-Shiite and closing ranks based on sect. Maliki has also accused the other side of fraud, a charge Western officials say is unsubstantiated. In doing so, Maliki's coalition is following the example of Allawi, who voiced similar concerns even before the vote.
"Most people understand the Iraqiya list has many Baathists," Sami Askari, a senior advisor to Maliki, said Monday, predicting that the country's influential Shiite clergy would never endorse a government headed by those with perceived links to the Hussein era. Askari also claimed that Iraqis saw Allawi's list as backed by Saudi Arabia, a largely Sunni country that many Iraqi Shiites view as irrevocably hostile. Those in Maliki's circle insist that the prime minister post must go to a Shiite with proper religious credentials.
"Iyad [Allawi] is Shiite but he is representing the Sunnis. This will rule him out," said Maliki ally Ezzat Shabandar, a onetime lawmaker who left Allawi's parliamentary bloc last year, disillusioned with the former prime minister's autocratic decision-making style.
Already, pressure is building for Shiite foes of Maliki to support him for a second term for sectarian reasons, according to Shabandar.
Leaders of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's political movement loathe Maliki and would like to unseat him, but they know they can never back Allawi, Shabandar said.
"I am sure the marjaiyah [Shiite clergy] will support Maliki," he said, adding that Shiite politicians have been visiting Shiite clerical leaders in Najaf, who are seen as the protectors of Iraq's Shiite faithful.
He said the clerics have started to let it be known that the Islamic Supreme Council should avoid opposing Maliki so as not to endanger the majority sect.
"If there is a possibility for Baath to infiltrate power, it is through Allawi," Shabandar said.