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Iraq's Arab neighbours wary of Shi'ite sway after vote
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iraq's Arab neighbours fear a split Iraqi election could further marginalise minority Sunnis and hope any coalition government formed by the Shi'ite frontrunner will resist Iran's sway.
Many Sunni Arabs had wanted a stronger showing by secularists, who they now hope will bring cross-sectarian balance to any coalition government that could be formed by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
"These election results show that there is a Shi'ite wave in the region which threatens Arab security in the region. Iran has a hidden role in the Arab region and it supports Shi'ite elements in the area, particularly in Iraq," said Magid Mazloum from the Centre for Gulf Studies in Cairo.
"Sunnis in Iraq are a scattered minority stuck between Shi'ites on the one hand and Kurds on the other. This is bound to create instability in the country."
Early election results showed Maliki pulling ahead on Sunday in an election Iraqis hoped would end years of sectarian strife, but a divided vote suggested long and fraught talks to form a government are ahead.
But the overall picture, reflecting a nation fragmented by decades of sectarian and ethnic conflict, was still incomplete a week after the vote. Results released so far represent just over a quarter of 12 million votes cast, and may change.
Sunni-led Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf where there are significant and marginalised Shi'ite minorities, worry about the repercussions of Iranian influence in Iraq. They are concerned that the Shi'ite majority is trying to deprive Iraq's once dominant Sunnis of their fair share of power.
They fear meddling by Shi'ite non-Arab Iran in Iraq, an Arab country with a Shi'ite Muslim majority, could incite their own Shi'ite populations and that sectarian instability in Iraq could spill over.
"The big worry for us is that such a divided and sectarian Iraq is easily penetrated by regional powers and here of course Iran comes as the biggest and meddling regional power," said Emirati analyst Abdul-Khaleq Abdullah.
"That really does not settle very nicely with the GCC, the smaller Gulf countries," he added, referring to a bloc of six Gulf Arab states, including top oil exporter Saudi Arabia.
The outcome of Iraq's first parliamentary poll since 2005 will shape its future as its stability is tested by an upcoming U.S. troop withdrawal and political struggles undermining Iraq's efforts to re-establish itself on the world stage.
While Maliki's State of Law bloc appeared to be ahead in seven of 18 provinces, the secularist Iraqiya list headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, was leading in five.
The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), Maliki's main competitor and led by a party with close ties to Iran, trailed close behind. Maliki would likely get first go at forming a government.
"From my point of view I hope they mix the authorities together. It's the best choice they have ... That's why a coalition would be a good thing," said Yasser Ahmed Ali, 28, an Emirati production engineer.
Final results are not expected for weeks.
"The new Iraq will be an imbalanced Iraq. Results show Shi'ites in the lead," said Abdullah al-Ashaal, former assistant to Egypt's minister of foreign affairs.
"Such results are in line of what Iran wants and the Shi'ite coalitions seem to be with Iran."
Few Arabs thought that elections in Iraq would put pressure on other Arab governments to give voices to their own citizens. But Saudi commentator Abdullah bin Bijad al-Oteiby said the vote showed fragile but growing democracy there.
"Everyone knows that Iraq is still a stage for regional and international influences, but the Iraqi citizen's awareness of the vote's value has increased," he wrote in a column in Okaz newspaper.
Western diplomats say Riyadh, the leading political player in the Gulf, fears Iraq's democracy inspiring Saudis to question the system of government in the absolute monarchy.
In Kuwait, with often tense ties to Iraq, said it did not matter whether the government was led by Sunnis or Shi'ites.
"Any result of a democratic process in Iraq is a gain for us and the region," said Ali al-Baghli, Kuwaiti political analyst and former oil minister.
"Kuwait was threatened by Iraq several times when it was under a Sunni ruler (Saddam Hussein). It was Sunni Iraq that threatened Kuwait and it was Sunni Iraq that invaded Kuwait," he added.
(Additional reporting by Raissa Kasolowsky and Rania Oteify in Dubai, Eman Goma in Kuwait, Marwa Awad in Cairo and Ulf Laessing in Riyadh; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)
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