Many Iraqis had hoped that the March 7 elections would advance a united national consensus to build a sovereign and democratic Iraq, free of foreign occupation.
But it appears that struggle has a ways to go.
In fact, the election campaign revived the sectarian polarization that fueled bloody violence in 2006-2007, and that had been subsiding since then.
Announced results gave former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's slate a thin lead over the slate of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. With Allawi's slate getting 91 seats to Maliki's 89 in the new 325-seat Parliament, both are far from being able to form a new government and will have to win support from others. That is expected to be a protracted process. The vote tallies continue to be disputed as well.
Allawi's slate included splinter groups from the former Sunni Islamic Accord, some tribal groups and former Baathists. Allawi, a secular Shiite and former Baathist, presented himself as representing all of Iraq's Sunni population, while using code language appealing to Baath supporters. (Sunnis make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, Shiites about 60 percent, Kurds 20 percent, with other small religious/ethnic groups.) At the same time he campaigned as a secularist, appealing to the wide Iraqi disillusionment with religious-based parties, and he drew votes on this basis.
Maliki's slate, which campaigned on a secular platform and won big in last year's provincial elections, included his own Shiite Islamic Dawa party as well as other Shiites and a number of independent and Sunni figures and tribal leaders.
Some believe Allawi, who has a reputed history of CIA connections, is considered by at least some U.S. circles to be a more cooperative "partner" than Maliki. Maliki has struck an independent nationalist stance on issues related to the U.S. troop pullout and Iraq's oil. Some Iraqis see Allawi's slate as serving U.S. interest in countering Iran's influence in the area.
Coming in third with 70 seats was a Shiite Islamic slate that included the Islamic Supreme Council and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's group. It is seen as having ties to Iran.
Fourth with 43 seats was the Kurdistan Alliance, which included the two historically dominant Kurdish parties and others including the Kurdistan Communist Party. A new independent Kurdish party, Change (Gorran), won 8 seats.
In the view of Salam Ali of the Iraqi Communist Party, the U.S. wants to ensure that whatever government emerges will be a "fragile balance that they can manipulate." While he thinks the U.S. prefers "somebody other than Maliki," Ali said, "they can influence all these blocs, including those close to Iran."
This election was conducted under a controversial law adopted with heavy pressure from the U.S. Its formula for awarding parliamentary seats, many warned, would disenfranchise smaller slates and further entrench existing dominant parties.
That is exactly what happened. The Iraqi Communist Party, which had 2 seats in Parliament and, with its coalition partners, held one of the largest campaign rallies in the country, drawing some 15,000 people, will have no seats in the new Parliament. Most other smaller slates also wound up with no seats.
The Kurdistan Alliance and the Shiite Islamic slate are now key players in determining who will lead Iraqi's government.
Vast sums of money, on a scale never seen before in Iraq, much of it from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, played a major role in the election. All the big slates had their own satellite television stations which promoted their campaigns. One such station, Al Sharqiya, in effect a mouthpiece for Allawi, reportedly has Saudi funding, and another, Al-Arabiya, which also backed Allawi, is partly Saudi-owned.
The flow of cash funded a flood of giant campaign billboards. The disconnect between their glowing slogans and the reality of everyday life - electricity outages, joblessness, inadequate public services - infuriated many Iraqis.
Allawi benefited from a pre-election de-Baathification crisis.
Under a 2008 law adopted by Parliament, a de-Baathification commission disqualified about 500 among thousands of candidates due to alleged Baathist involvement. Maliki had re-integrated thousands of lower-level former Baathists into political and social life as part of the country's efforts to overcome past divisions. His Shiite Islamic rivals used the issue to attack him. To maintain his own Shiite base, Maliki strongly backed the Baathist disqualifications. Allawi, in turn, accused Maliki of seeking to marginalize Sunnis.
Ali of the Iraqi CP said the U.S. "interfered in a very blunt and open way," pressing to postpone resolution of the candidates' status until after the elections. The U.S. role "caused a lot of displeasure," Ali said.
The furor boosted voter turnout among Allawi's base.
One disillusioned Iraqi in the UK commented on a blog, "How many people could have been fed, clothed, housed, employed, or treated with all the money and effort that continues to go into this game of musical chairs ...?
Noting that President Obama hailed the elections as a big success, British political scientist Toby Dodge, writing in the UK Guardian, says, "The ramifications of the 7 March vote are still unfolding and are starting to look much less positive than Obama had hoped."
Ali said a priority is building a mass movement for electoral reform. The current law is "designed to suit the big blocs and perpetuate them in power," he said. "All of them say they are opposed to sectarianism. In reality, all of them have come to power through this system. The election law effectively maintains this system."
"Change," Ali said, "has to come from below."
Photo: Election campaign posters cover a Baghdad streetcorner before the March 7 elections. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)