Who won Iraq's Dec. 15 election?

On Jan. 20, the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq finally got around to announcing the results of Iraq's Dec. 15, 2005, parliamentary elections.

Why did it take 35 days to count the votes? No one knows for sure. When asked at the press conference, commission chairman and internationally renowned arithmetician the Count only would say, "I count one reporter ... two reporters ... three reporters."

Actually, it took as long as it did for the commission to announce the parliamentary results because Iraq's Sunni Arabs kept complaining that ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation by Iraq's Shi'ite Arabs skewed the vote in favor of the Shi'ites.

The commission eventually agreed with the Sunnis that there were some voting irregularities — but not enough to invalidate the results or justify a recount. The Jan. 26 issue of the Economist summed it up this way: "A number of international institutions, including the United Nations, declared the poll free and fair enough."

Free and fair enough works for Florida and Ohio. Why not Iraq?

The election results basically broke down along Iraq's religious and ethnic lines. Of the 275 parliament seats up for grabs, 128 went to the Shi'ite Arab group called United Iraqi Alliance. The UIA isn't a political party. It's a broad-based political coalition.

"Broad-based? You mean, like, chicks and stuff?" you ask, in a Brooklyn accent.

No, I mean that it's a coalition of several theocratically inclined Shi'ite religious parties, some of whom don't really like each other but have decided to join up for their common good.

The biggest party in the UIA is SCIRI. SCIRI stands for Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. SCIRI also is close to the leadership in Iran. Like the Iranian leaders, SCIRI would like to impose their fundamentalist Shi'ite interpretation of Islamic law on as many people as they can. Very SCIRI.

The biggest surprise of the election was the impressive performance of Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr's group won about 30 of the UIA's seats, giving it about the same number as SCIRI and the other big Shi'ite party, Dawa.

You may recall that in 2004, Sadr was America's bogeyman No. 1 in Iraq. U.S. forces battled Sadr's militia, the so-called Mahdi Army, in Baghdad and Najaf.

Sadr and U.S. forces have maintained a truce since June 2004, but they're far from buddies. Sadr is still a loud critic of the U.S. occupation. Last month, he traveled to Iran, where he publicly declared that his Mahdi Army would fight for Iran if the country was attacked.

As scary as it is to imagine Muqtada al-Sadr as a legit, voter-mandated voice of the Iraqi people, his rise to power may be helpful to the United States. Sadr is perhaps the one Iraqi leader capable of stopping the UIA from teaming up with the Kurds (who earned 58 seats in the parliament) in order to shut out the Sunni Arabs (who earned 55 seats).

The U.S. worries that if Shi'ites and Kurds join forces against the Sunnis, the Sunni insurgency will only get bigger. Sadr might be able to stop that from happening because, having fought the U.S. occupation himself, he has street cred with many Sunnis.

Also, Sadr is not very fond of SCIRI, the Kurds, or their plans for a decentralized, loosely federal system of government (a system that would hurt Sunnis most since their territories don't have the oil that Shi'ite and Kurdish territories do).

Salon.com recently reported that Sadr bragged to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah that he is the only Shi'ite leader that Iraq's Sunnis would tolerate. He might be right.

If all that seems somewhat discouraging to you, you're not alone. I realize that it's my patriotic duty as an American to be impressed at the sight of Iraqi democracy in action. But so far, democracy in Iraq doesn't much look like a path to freedom, peace and prosperity. It looks like a path to disintegration, preceded by civil war.

P.S. This election may very well have been the end of the Iraqi political career of Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi. His party managed just 0.3 percent of the vote, barely ahead of perennial Iraqi write-in favorites Mick-e ibn-Mouse and Haywoodja Blomi.