Allawi's Iraqiya bloc came out the top vote-getter in March 7 parliamentary elections, edging out his chief rival, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who vowed to challenge the results. But with a razor-thin margin over al-Maliki's coalition, Allawi's road to regaining the premiership is anything but guaranteed, and a lengthy period of political negotiations
- possibly punctuated with violence - likely lies ahead.
"The Iraqi people have blessed the Iraqiya bloc by choosing it," Allawi told a packed news conference Saturday at his headquarters. "We are open to all powers starting with the State of Law bloc of brother Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki."
Allawi's Iraqiya coalition won 91 seats to 89 for al-Maliki's State of Law bloc, riding a wave of support from Sunnis frustrated with the current government, which they say has incited sectarian tensions and is too closely aligned with neighboring Iran.
Allawi, a Shiite who has called for a greater voice for the Sunni minority that dominated Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein, has appealed for a broad coalition centered on national identity rather than religious sect.
The full election results, announced Friday, suggest millions of Iraqis are fed up with a political system that revolves around membership in one of the two major Islamic sects.
Sunni neighborhoods across Baghdad erupted into wild pandemonium after the results were announced, dancing in the streets and waving Iraqi flags.
But with the Sunni minority making up only about 15-20 percent of Iraq, Allawi's victory would not have been possible without at least some support from the country's Shiite majority, and he got it.
While the prime minister's bloc was shut out of key Sunni provinces such as Anbar, Salahuddin and Ninevah, Allawi managed to pick up seats here and there across the Shiite south and only lost out to al-Maliki by two seats in the key province of Baghdad. With only two seats overall separating his Iraqiya bloc from al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, those gains proved to be the difference.
"It's an anti-incumbent message," said Toby Dodge, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "In voting for Allawi, the people criticized the ruling elite, the incoherence of the current government, its failure to deliver on promises of a better life."
The next prime minister will lead a government that presumably will be in power when the U.S. completes its scheduled troop withdrawal from Iraq next year. Many in the West have feared that the U.S. withdrawal would leave a political void in Iraq that neighboring Iran would be poised to fill.
If Allawi were to gain the prime minister's post, he could allay some of those fears because he has much better relations with Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors than does al-Maliki, who was largely shunned by countries such as Saudi Arabia, who fear a rising Shiite-majority in their backyard.