The results of the March 7 Iraqi parliamentary election results announced Thursday do not present a clear picture of what comes next in terms of government in that country.
Of the 325 seats in parliament, the Iraqiya coalition of former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi won the most, with 91 seats. The State of Law coalition of current prime minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki finished second by a small margin, with 89 seats. Neither coalition is within even shouting distance of achieving the 163 seats necessary to constitute a majority in the parliament, the basis of forming a government.
In the meantime Mr. al-Maliki, the second-place finisher, has demanded a recount and obtained from Iraq's supreme court a ruling that puts him first in the race to form a government. He will already hold power on an interim basis until the parliament assembles, probably in June. Neither Western observers, nor Iraq's own Independent High Electoral Commission, nor the United Nations says it saw evidence of enough fraud in the elections to justify the recount Mr. al-Maliki is asking for.
So much for any indication that Iraq's elections this year would be any kind of example of democracy in practice in the Middle East, if anyone ever thought that would be the case.
If there is reason to believe that stability based on general acceptability of a government in Iraq by its three main religious factions, the Shiites with 60 percent, the formerly ruling Sunnis with 20 percent, and the aspiring separatist Kurds with 20 percent, a victory by Mr. Allawi's Iraqiya group, forming a coalition government with other elements and parties, would probably be the best outcome. Mr. al-Maliki's group's strength comes almost entirely from Shiites. The coalition of Mr. Allawi, a Shiite himself, nonetheless drew votes from the country's Sunnis, who boycotted the 2005 elections.
From now until a government is formed, the two major coalitions, Iraqiya and the State of Law group, will be looking for partners to achieve 163 seats among a fractious collection of parties. These include the Iraqi National Alliance, which has 70 seats and includes the difficult Shiite religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The Kurds of the north, with 43 seats, are another wild card in the combination.
For the United States, the essential course of action is "steady as she goes" on U.S. troop withdrawal from the current 98,000 down to 50,000 by the end of August no matter what political somersaults the Iraqis perform among themselves in the meantime.