BAGHDAD, Iraq – Ayad Allawi (search) was handpicked by Washington as prime minister, but to stay in office he must get majority support in the parliament that will be elected in two weeks.
That won't be easy.
Allawi is running on a ticket that's likely to be trumped by a rival one supported by Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric. And that ticket has its own candidate for the coveted prime minister spot — a French-educated finance minister whose party has managed the difficult task of staying on good terms with both Iran and its nemesis, the United States.
Allawi, who forged close ties with the CIA in the last of his three decades in exile, came to office last summer amid high hopes of containing the insurgency and preparing for elections.
Since then, however, the violence has intensified and the credibility of the Jan. 30 vote is in jeopardy. Many of the country's minority Sunni Arabs (search), who held supremacy under Saddam Hussein, are unlikely to participate either because of deteriorating security or to protest the United States' perceived influence.
The election works like this: first, Iraqis elect a 275-member national assembly on Jan. 30. Next, the assembly elects a largely ceremonial president and two deputies. Then those three choose a prime minister and the assembly ratifies their choice.
So unless one of the big groups wins an outright majority in the national assembly, Iraq will be in for a spell of horse-trading with smaller parties and independents to determine who will be prime minister and hold real power.
Ethnic and religious shadings matter greatly, and both groups have sought to appear ecumenical. Allawi's slate of candidates is a mix of Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites like himself. The rival slate is heavily Shiite but also includes the other groups.
Sistani's blessing of the rival ticket is crucial. Shiites make up about 60 percent of the country's estimated 25 million people, and most revere the Iranian-born cleric. Allawi, on the other hand, lacks a broad power base, having spent so many years abroad.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim (search), a Shiite cleric who leads Iraq's largest Shiite political party, heads the Sistani-backed ticket, but is not seeking the job of prime minister. Finance Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a senior member of Hakim's Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is the designated candidate for the job.
Abdul-Mahdi worked with the Americans who directly ruled Iraq for 14 months until last June, and according to diplomats who know him, he's a seasoned politician who has reached out to Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
Senior Shiite figures, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abdul-Mahdi's chances of becoming prime minister have improved after two visits to Washington over the past few months, when he met with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
A Washington-based diplomat close to Iraq's political process said Allawi remained the United States' choice, but Washington would not allow itself to be seen as blocking Abdul-Mahdi if the assembly preferred him as prime minister.
However, many Iraqis are uncomfortable with Abdul-Mahdi's SCIRI because it is Islamic-oriented, was bankrolled by Iran for two decades and was based there until Saddam's ouster enabled it to return to Iraq.
It is not uncommon to hear Farsi, Iran's main language, spoken at party offices. Party leaders frequently visit Iran, and the group's military wing, the now-dissolved Badr Brigade, fought with Iran against Iraq in a ruinous 1980-88 war.
Abdul-Mahdi's chances are helped by the grass-roots campaigning of fellow candidates.
Activists from SCIRI and Dawa, another Shiite party, are going door-to-door and mosque-to-mosque to get out the vote.
Allawi, in contrast, appears to be using his position in government to campaign heavily on television and appears nightly on the air.
Some Allawi allies have scathingly attacked the rival ticket, labeling it an "Iranian slate" and warning that, if elected, it will bring clerical rule to Iraq. Sistani's allies dismiss the charges as scaremongering.
Even if the elections are successfully held despite the insurgency's ferocious campaign to abort them, the political phase will have only just begun. The assembly will then have to draft a constitution, Iraqis will have to approve it in a referendum and another general election will be held for a new parliament before Dec. 15.