BAGHDAD, Iraq – Clergy-backed Shiites and independence-minded Kurds swept to victory in Iraq's landmark elections, propelling to power the groups that suffered most under Saddam Hussein (search) and forcing Sunni Arabs to the margins for the first time in modern history, according to final results released Sunday.
But the Shiites' 48 percent of the vote is far short of the two-thirds majority needed to control the 275-member National Assembly. The results threw immediate focus on Iraqi leaders' backdoor dealmaking to create a new coalition government — possibly in an alliance with the Kurds — and on efforts to lure Sunnis into the fold and away from a bloody insurgency.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search), the secular Shiite chosen by the United States to lead this country for the last eight turbulent months, fared poorly — his ticket finishing a distant third behind the religious Shiites and Kurds.
"This is a new birth for Iraq," election commission spokesman Farid Ayar said, announcing results of the Jan. 30 polling, the first free election in Iraq in more than 50 years and the first since Saddam fell. Iraqi voters "became a legend in their confrontation with terrorists."
Iraqi Kurds danced in the streets and waved Kurdish flags when results were announced in the oil-rich, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk (search). Thousands more Kurds — a people who were gassed and forced from their homes by Saddam's forces — turned out in Sulaimaniyah, firing weapons in the air and carrying posters of their leaders.
"I feel that I am born again," said Bakhtiyar Mohammed, 42. "I am very happy because we suffered a lot. Now I can say that I am an Iraqi Kurd with pride."
President Bush praised Iraqis and said America and its allies should be proud for making the election possible. "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. "And I congratulate every candidate who stood for election and those who will take office once the results are certified."
The Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance ticket received 4,075,295 votes, or about 48 percent of the total cast, officials said.
The Kurdistan Alliance, a coalition of two main Kurdish parties, finished second with 2,175,551 votes, or 26 percent. And the Iraqi List headed by Allawi stood third with 1,168,943 votes, or nearly 14 percent.
Parties have three days to lodge complaints, after which the results will be certified and seats in the new Assembly distributed. Seats will generally be allocated according to the percentage of votes that each ticket won. It appeared only 12 coalitions would take seats. The Shiites stand to gain up to 140 seats with the Kurds could end up with about 75.
"This is a great victory for the Iraqi people," said Ahmad Chalabi, a former Pentagon protege and member of the Shiite ticket who is lobbying for the prime minister's post. "We will have an assembly which is elected by the people and the government which is completely legitimate and elected by the people."
Other leading contenders for the top post include fellow Shiites Ibrahim Jaafari, a vice president; Finance Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi; and former nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani.
Abdul-Mahdi told al-Arabiya the next Iraqi government is burdened with "difficult and complicated responsibilities that require national unity and the wide support of the national assembly," and the presidency. He said his alliance is "seeking to realize a wide national harmony in choosing" for those positions.
The election results highlighted the sharp differences among Iraq's ethnic, religious and cultural groups — many of whom fear domination not just by the Shiites, estimated at 60 percent of the population, but also by the Kurds, the most pro-American group with about 15 percent.
The results also draw attention to the close and longtime ties between now-victorious Iraqi Shiite leaders and clerics in neighboring Iran. The Shiite ticket owes its success to the support of Iraq's clerics, including Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
In contrast, many Sunni Arabs, who make up an estimated 20 percent of the population, stayed home on election day, either out of fear of violence or to support a boycott call by radical clerics opposed to the U.S. military.
Overall, national turnout was about 60 percent, the commission said — but only 2 percent of the eligible voters cast ballots in Anbar province, the Sunni insurgent stronghold that includes Ramadi and Fallujah.
Turnout was also low in the Sunni Arab provinces of Ninevah and Salaheddin, both insurgency centers. An American soldier was killed and another wounded in Salaheddin as the results were being announced in Baghdad.
After results came out Sunday, some Sunnis again rejected the whole process.
"The elections were held to fight the Sunnis and were led by the Americans with the Kurds and Shiites," said Ramadi mechanic Abdullah al-Dulaimi. "The election results will lead to a sectarian war."
Mohammed Bashar of the anti-American Association of Muslim Scholars said he questioned the figures because few international or U.N. monitors were present in Iraq for the vote.
"Those who boycotted the elections are more than those who took part in it," Bashar said on Al-Jazeera television.
No date has been set for convening the new assembly. Its first task will be to elect a president and two vice presidents by a two-thirds majority. So far the only declared presidential candidate is a Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. The three will choose a new prime minister subject to assembly approval.
Mindful of such tensions, Shiite leaders went out of their way Sunday to assure disaffected Sunnis, as well as Turkomen, Christians and others, that they would have a place in the new Iraq and a role in drafting the new constitution.
Abdul-Mahdi, the finance minister and possible prime minister, insisted that Shiite leaders do not want "an Islamic government."
And the Shiite ticket's leader, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, told Iraqi television: "We believe in the need for participation and will seek harmony among all segments of the Iraqi people."
Al-Hakim, who lost 19 family members to Saddam's executioners, sat and wept as he heard the results.
But finding credible Sunni leaders — who can speak for both average Sunnis and also reach out to the insurgency — could prove difficult.
Although the Shiite ticket included some Sunnis, prominent Sunni Arab politicians fared poorly due to the boycott: The list headed by interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, won only 150,680 votes. The ticket led by Sunni elder statesman Adnan Pachachi gained only 12,728 votes.
Pachachi, who had pleaded with the Bush administration to delay the election to allow time to win Sunni support, said it was now clear "a big number of Iraqis" did not vote.
Because relatively few Sunnis will end up in the assembly, some Iraqi politicians have suggested appointing Sunnis to advisory committees to help draft the new constitution.
But the Association of Muslim Scholars, believed to have some ties to the insurgency, has demanded tough conditions for accepting such a role — including a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The group also wants to end purges of members of Saddam's Baath party from the government.
Many Shiites and Kurds — with bitter memories of Saddam's repression — have opposed opening government ranks to former Baathists. And in general, those groups also have said they want U.S. troops to stay for now.
"The issue is about policies and strategies," Shiite politician Mouwafak al-Rubaie told CNN's "Late Edition." "The issue is not about appeasement policy, appeasing the old Baathists or old criminals who have committed crimes against our own people."