BAGHDAD -- Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi reached out to his rivals to form a governing coalition Saturday, staking his claim as the top vote-getter in Iraq's elections and saying he hoped to build strong relations with neighboring countries.
Allawi's secular Iraqiya bloc edged out chief rival Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by just two seats in the March 7 vote for a 325-member parliament. The razor-thin victory meant 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.
Regardless of the outcome, the final results released Friday were a turning point and served as a rejection of the domination of Shiite religious parties as has been the case since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. In many ways it also was a referendum against the sectarian politics that had pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
The next government will likely be in power when U.S. troops leave Iraq next year. Many in the West have feared the U.S. withdrawal would leave a political void that neighboring Iran would be poised to fill but Allawi's re-emergence could allay some of those concerns. He has much better relations with Iraq's mainly Sunni Arab neighbors than al-Maliki.
Allawi's Iraqiya coalition won 91 seats to 89 for al-Maliki's bloc, riding a wave of support from Sunnis frustrated with the Shiite-dominated government, which they say has incited sectarian tensions and is too closely aligned with neighboring Iran.
But both groups fell far short of the 163 seat majority needed to form a government alone, leaving a Shiite religious coalition including anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr known as the Iraqi National Coalition and U.S.-allied Kurds as likely kingmakers.
Facing tough negotiations, Allawi struck a conciliatory tone but made clear he was claiming victory, even as al-Maliki launched his first legal challenge amid allegations of fraud that have been dismissed by the U.N. and Iraqi electoral authorities.
"The Iraqi people have blessed the Iraqiya bloc by choosing it," Allawi told reporters Saturday at his headquarters. "We are open to all powers starting with the State of Law bloc of brother Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the INA and the Kurdish alliance and other blocs."
He said he hoped a new government that could build strong relations with neighboring countries could be formed quickly.
"The stability of Iraq is the stability of the region and the stability of the region is the stability of Iraq," he said. "We cannot wait forever for America and for others to remain to protect the region. The region should be protected by its own people."
Allawi, a Shiite who has called for a greater voice for the Sunni minority that dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein's regime, has appealed for a broad coalition centered on national identity rather than religious affiliation.
The Sunni role in choosing Allawi also appeared to cement the minority Islamic sect's return to political life, a key U.S. goal after the community boycotted the first post-Saddam national elections in 2005.
Sunni neighborhoods across Baghdad erupted into wild pandemonium after the results were announced, with men dancing in the streets and waving Iraqi flags.
But with Sunni Arabs making up only about 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq, Allawi's victory would not have been possible without at least some Shiite support, and he got it.
While the prime minister's bloc was shut out of key Sunni provinces, Allawi picked up seats across the Shiite south and only lost to al-Maliki by two seats in Baghdad.
"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," said Toby Dodge, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
If Allawi is tapped to form a government, his challenges would be considerable.
His Sunni allies are abhorred by the Kurds, who are considered key to any coalition government. It's also not at all clear he can win support from the Iraqi National Alliance partly because nationalist Sadrist members object to his ties to the Americans and neighboring countries. Al-Maliki also had serious problems with the Kurds because of their claims to a large swath of territory in northern Iraq.
Members of the INA as well as Kurdish President Jalal Talabani were in Iran Saturday to celebrate the Persian holiday, Nowruz.
"We hope the way will be opened for reconstruction and development in all areas and that Iraq, in its new era, will witness the formation of a powerful national government," Iran's official IRNA news agency quoted Talabani as saying.
Many Shiites view Allawi's coalition as thinly veiled holdovers from Saddam's Baathist regime, but many Sadrists' also view al-Maliki, who supported offensives to rout their militias and jailed thousands of their supporters, with revulsion because of his attempt to crush the movement's armed militia in 2008.
"Allawi's list is an essential political and geographic constituent that cannot be ignored," said Ameer Taher al-Kinani, a senior Sadrist official.
Al-Maliki, the U.S. partner in Iraq for the past four years, said angrily in a nationally televised news conference Friday that he did not accept the results. Those thoughts were echoed Saturday by his supporters.
Sami al-Askari, a senior member of State of Law and al-Maliki confidante, said fraud was the reason for the coalition's poor showing and that they would challenge the results legally.
Already al-Maliki's camp has launched a legal challenge, raising questions about the prime minister's willingness to hand over power.
Under the constitution, the president tasks the largest bloc in parliament with trying to form a government, but al-Maliki asked the Supreme Court to clarify the definition of the largest bloc. The court's ruling leaves open the possibility that the biggest bloc could be a coalition formed after the election, not one that existed on election day.
Allawi immediately made his position clear.
"The Iraqi people have praised the Iraqiya bloc and chose it as a base to start negotiations with other blocs," Allawi said.
Al-Maliki's government, meanwhile, remains in a caretaker role until a new government is named, but the uncertainty has fueled fears of new violence.
In a harbinger of what may be in store, the death toll in Friday's twin bombings in the Shiite enclave of Khalis, north of Baghdad, rose to 57, with 73 wounded, according to Diyala province police spokesman Capt. Ghalib al-Karkhi.