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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Islam's Role in New Iraq Is Still Unclear

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The razor-thin margin apparently captured by the Shiite alliance in election results announced Sunday seems almost certain to enshrine a weak government that will be unable to push through sweeping changes, such as granting Islam a central role in the new Iraqi state.

The verdict handed down by Iraqi voters in the Jan. 30 election appeared to be a divided one, with the Shiite political alliance, backed by the clerical leadership in Najaf, opposed in nearly equal measure by an array of mostly secular minority parties.

According to Iraqi leaders, the fractured mandate almost certainly heralds protracted negotiating, in which the Shiite alliance will have to strike deals with parties run by the Kurds and others, most of which are secular and broadly opposed to an enhanced role for Islam or an overly Shiite government.

The main responsibility of the Iraqi government over the next 10 months will be the drafting of a permanent constitution, which must pass a vote of the assembly and then be put to a vote of the people later this year. The role of Islam is expected to be one of the most contentious issues.

The results of the balloting appeared to leave Kurdish leaders, whose party captured more than a quarter of the assembly seats, in a particularly strong position to shape the next government. The Kurds are the United States' closest allies in Iraq, and most of their leaders are of a strong secular bent.

Among the demands that the Kurds and other groups will put to Shiite leaders as the price for their cooperation will be an insistence on a more secular state and concessions on Kirkuk, the ethnically divided city that Kurdish leaders want to integrate into their regional government. Kurdish leaders also say they will insist that the Iraqi president be a Kurd.

The prospect of a divided National Assembly, split between religious and secular parties, also appeared to signal a continuing role for the U.S. government, which already maintains 150,000 troops here, to help broker disputes.

As the final vote totals were being announced Sunday, Shiite leaders appeared to be scaling back their expectations and preparing to reach out to parties in the opposition to help them form a new government.

"We have to compromise," said Adnan Ali, a senior leader in the Dawa party, one of the largest in the Shiite coalition, called the United Iraqi Alliance. "Even though we have a majority, we will need other groups to form a government."

The vote tally, which appeared to leave the Shiite alliance with about 140 of the National Assembly's 275 seats, fell short of what Shiite leaders had been expecting, and seemed to blunt some of the triumphant talk that could already be heard in some corners. The final results seemed to ease fears among Iraq's Sunni, Kurdish and Christian minorities that the leadership of the Shiite majority might feel free to ignore minority concerns, and possibly fall under the sway of powerful clerics, some of whom advocate the establishment of a strict Islamic state.

As a result, some Iraqi leaders predicted Sunday that the Shiite alliance would try to form a "national unity government" containing Kurdish and Sunni leaders, as well as secular Shiites, possibly including the current Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Such a leadership would all but ensure that no decisions would be taken without a broad national consensus.

One senior Iraqi official, a non-Shiite who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the slim majority won by the Shiite alliance signaled even greater obstacles for the Shiite parties in the future.