BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's long-downtrodden Shiite Muslims won the largest share of the vote in Iraq's landmark election, according to a final count released yesterday, though they failed to score the outright majority they had been expecting.
With a 48 percent share, the United Iraqi Alliance, a clergy-backed coalition of mostly religious Shiite parties, nonetheless will be in a virtually unassailable position to head the next government and take the lead in writing Iraq's new constitution.
The country's equally oppressed Kurds came in second, with 25.6 percent, leaving them well-placed to act as power brokers in the new National Assembly and cementing a large reversal of fortune for two communities that have been persecuted throughout history by Iraq's Sunni minority.
Shiite and Kurdish leaders said they would reach out to include Sunni Muslims, the election's biggest losers. The leading Sunni party, headed by interim President Ghazi al-Yawar, won 1.8 percent, enough to secure four to five seats in the 275-seat assembly.
In Washington, President Bush hailed the result, which came two weeks after Iraqis braved the threat of bombs and bullets to go to the polls.
"I congratulate the Iraqi people for defying terrorist threats and setting their country on the path of democracy and freedom," he said in a statement. "The world saw long lines of Iraqi men and women voting in a free and fair election for the first time in their lives. The United States and our coalition partners can all take pride in our role in making that great day possible."
Despite initial projections that the lines at polling stations on Election Day meant that Sunnis had defied insurgents' threats and calls for a boycott, the dismally low turnout figures from Sunni areas suggest otherwise.
In turbulent Anbar province, home to the city of Fallujah and a center of the insurgency, 13,893 people voted, or 2 percent of those eligible.
In Nineveh province, where Mosul is situated, turnout was 17 percent, and most of those who voted were Shiites and Kurds.
Turnout overall was 8.5 million, or about 58 percent of those eligible, ranging from Anbar's low of 2 percent to a high of 92 percent in the Kurdish province of Dohuk.
The outcome was a stinging blow for Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite U.S.-backed interim prime minister, whose slate won only 13.7 percent of the vote despite the television exposure afforded by his job and the biggest campaign spending by far of any candidate.
Allawi is disappointed and blames his poor showing on the endorsement of the Shiite coalition by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite religious authority, said Raja Khuzai, an Allawi aide.
"Most of the people in the south are very simple and follow what Sistani tells them," she said. "The educated people know that Sistani is a cleric, a religious man just like the pope, and he shouldn't be involved in politics."
Shiite leaders expressed disappointment that they had not secured the majority they expected and said the unexpectedly high voting figures in Kurdish provinces diluted the Shiite vote. Kurds are the only group whose share of the vote was bigger than their representation in the population at large, which could breed resentment down the line.
"We should have got more," said Adnan Ali, a senior official with the Islamic Dawa Party, a leading member of the Shiite alliance. "We're a bit surprised by the size of the ballot in Kurdistan."
Other groups, including Christians and Turkmens, have complained of irregularities in Kurdish areas that they say denied their parties a larger percentage of the vote. The main Christian party received 0.4 percent of the vote, enough for a single seat, and the United Turkmen Front garnered 1.9 percent.
A Kurdish alliance won a big majority, 59 percent, in the oil-rich northern province of Tamim, home to the disputed city of Kirkuk. While Kurds danced in Kirkuk's streets when the results were announced, Turkmens and Arabs said that they represent a majority in the city and have challenged the result with Iraq's election commission.
Neighboring Turkey, which has a large Kurdish minority and has long been wary of Iraq's Kurds, said the election results appeared inaccurate and asked the United Nations to review them.
Parties have three days to challenge the count, after which it will be certified, said election commission spokesman Farid Ayar, announcing the result at a packed news conference in Baghdad's fortified government center, known as the Green Zone.
Although the Shiite share of the vote fell short of the symbolically important 50 percent to 55 percent that coalition leaders had been projecting, that is unlikely to make a difference in the balance of power in the assembly, where key decisions on the appointment of the government and the constitution will require a two-thirds' majority.
The formula ensures that no single group dominates the historic first opportunity for Iraqis to write their own constitution, and intensive negotiations are under way toward forming the alliances that will be needed to pick the key positions in the next government.
The outlines of a deal are starting to emerge, under which the Shiite coalition is likely to take the most powerful job, prime minister, and the Kurds the largely ceremonial presidency.
According to the complicated proportional representation system used for the election, the Shiite coalition probably will wind up with about half the 275 seats in the National Assembly, after the votes of the parties that did not win a seat have been discounted. The Kurds will probably get 27 percent, although the exact allocation of seats will not be announced until today. No date has been set for the assembly to convene.
Allawi, despite his relatively poor showing, is trying to summon enough support to stay in his job, his aide Khuzai said. Allawi believes he can win enough support from the secular Kurds, other smaller parties and secularist independents within the Shiite coalition to challenge the religious parties that dominate the coalition, she said.
Though the alliance of Shiite parties will be unable to govern alone, it also will be impossible for any other group to form a coalition that excludes the Shiites. They have made it clear that as the winner of the popular vote, they expect to name the prime minister.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.