Bowing to the increasing likelihood that a Shia-Kurdish alliance will take control in Iraq after last week's elections, a group of mostly Sunni Arab parties announced yesterday they had decided "in principle" to take part in drafting a new constitution, even though they boycotted the poll.
Iraq's election commission failed to release new vote tallies yesterday, but said the final result would be out by Thursday. There would then be a nine-day period allowed to resolve complaints about the count before the results were certified.
The coalition of Shia parties called the United Iraqi Alliance is poised to win a majority in the Iraqi National Assembly, with two-thirds of the votes counted so far. The group of parties led by Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, has done less well than expected, making it unlikely he will be reappointed to the post. Hamed al-Bayati, the deputy foreign minister and a senior figure in the Alliance, said yesterday: "Shias want the prime ministership, we are insisting on it and will not give it up."
Put together under the auspices of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, the Alliance has won very large majorities in Baghdad and the nine southern provinces where Shias are in a majority. The vote from the eight northern provinces of Iraq is being counted more slowly, but will be dominated by the Kurds.
The Sunni Arabs largely abstained or were intimidated from voting, but a group of parties brought together by Sunni elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and president of the former Iraqi Governing Council, indicated it could participate in constitutional talks.
The most likely outcome of the election will be a government based on a Shia-Kurdish agreement to share out the posts. The complex rules governing the actions of the National Assembly require a two-thirds majority to form a government. If the Shia coalition wins 50 per cent of the 275 seats and the Kurdish Alliance 20 per cent then they will have a comfortable majority.
The Kurds would probably be happier if Mr Allawi had done better. He put himself forward as the secular candidate and the Kurdish parties have never, unlike the United Iraqi Alliance, been religious. The Kurds also want a federal Iraq and a weak central government so they can enjoy a degree of autonomy close to independence. The Shia parties oppose federalism.
In the last weeks of the campaign Mr Allawi seemed to be making headway despite his full support for bloody US attacks on Najaf and Fallujah and the shortages of electricity, fuel and water. A surprising number of Iraqis claimed they would vote for him, but in the event this did not happen.
The new government has similarities with that of Lebanon, with posts divided on a sectarian basis between Sunni, Shia and Kurd. One outcome might be a Kurd, Jalal al-Talabani, as president, and two vice-presidents, such as Ibrahim al-Jaffari, a Shia, and a Sunni Arab. These must vote unanimously to pick a prime minister, the leading candidate being Adel Abdel Mahdi, the present Finance Minister from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The United Iraqi Alliance was stitched together by emissaries of Ayatollah Sistani from the main Shia religious parties, SCIRI and Dawa, together with the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi. Half the members of the Alliance are independents.