Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi emerged from the election with a plurality of seats, winning 91 delegates to the next national assembly, against Prime Minister Maliki’s 89.

It is, it seems, about to get ugly.

Allawi, a former Baathist who quit the party in the 1970s, led a coalition of parties representings secular Iraqis, nationalists, those who oppose Iran’s influence, former Baathists, and various regional parties in provinces such as Nineveh (Mosul). His win is surprising, even shocking. He won with overwhleming support from Sunnis in northern and western Iraq, but in Baghdad — which elected 70 delegates, nearly one-fourth of the total of 325 — Allawi seems to have won not only Sunni votes but hundreds of thousands of secular Shiites, too.

Maliki, who pretended to be a nationalist but whose roots are deep in the ultra-religious Islamic Dawa party, is complaining that the election was rigged, an almost laughable charge. If anyone rigged anything, it was Maliki, who after all controls the levers of power. Before the election Maliki joined with the ultra-right Iraqi National Alliance, a clique of Iranian-backed religious Shiite parties, in support of an effort by Ahmed Chalabi to purge hundreds of secular and nationalist candidates from the ranks of those running for office, many of whom were members of Allawi’s coalition. Indeed, any fraud that occurred — though it seems minimal — probably was directed against Allawi.

Maliki now says that he’ll refuse to accept the results, a very ominous sign. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

“The fluidity of the situation has raised concerns that political battles will spill into the streets to be settled by force — including assassinations.

“Before the election, Maliki assigned army generals loyal to him to the main divisions around Baghdad and sent others to the south, according to Iraqi politicians and a Defense Ministry memo obtained by The Times.

“Officers also were purged from the Interior Ministry prior to the election. According to an Iraqi close to the ministry and a Western official, 191 officers were recently removed on allegations that they had once belonged to the Baath Party. The decree is still waiting to be enforced, but it could lead to the sacking of more than 70 police generals and colonels, raising fears that Maliki and other Shiite parties are trying to stock the security ministries with their supporters.

“An intelligence operative who works with political parties in Baghdad predicted local politicians would be targeted for assassination in the weeks ahead. He acknowledged that he had already started surveying targets, in case his side was attacked.”

If it does get ugly, Allawi will be at a disadvantage. Unlike Maliki, who controls the security and intelligence forces — nicely funded by the American taxpayer, thank you very much — and unlike the Kurds, the Sadrists, and the Badr Brigade of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which maintain militias, Allawi has none. The former resistance has disarmed, and the Sons of Iraq (Awakening, or sahwa) are badly disorganized.

Allawi’s path to power involves a deal with the Kurds, who won 50-odd seats, but that won’t be easy to get, since the Kurds are fiercely opposed to some of Allawi’s more Arab nationalist allies, especially in Mosul. And Allawi will have to peel off some elements of the INA, probably the Sadrists, but they are strongly anti-Baathist and they’ve shifted to a great degree into the Iranian camp since 2007, so a deal with them, too, would be difficult for Allawi. (Sadr, who lives in Iran, won the majority of seats in the INA bloc, a massive defeat for ISCI.)

Iran will move mountains — and assassins — to stop Allawi. Tehran will put a lot of pressure on Maliki, the INA, and the Kurds to block Allawi and to reform the pro-Iranian bloc that has ruled Iran since 2005-2006. On the other hand, if politics and power conspire to deny Allawi what he has won, expect the Sunnis to move into armed opposition to the re-established powers-that-be.

A final word. Contrary to the assertions of various know-nothings, the Allawi coalition was not supported by the United States — or, if it was, it was a deeply secret covert operation about which not a single shred of evidence has emerged. Indeed, when Allawi visited the United States a couple of times in the past two years, he knocked on doors all over Washington — including at the White House — and he couldn’t get the time of day. The Obama administration decided that as it withdraws US forces over the next year and a half, the best option was to do nothing to interfere in Iraqi politics, and it didn’t. Iraqi supporters of Allawi have complained to me that they haven’t been able to convince the United States to support them, despite the obvious pro-Iranian tilt of the Maliki-ISCI government that was set up in 2006.

Allawi did get support from the Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, though according to sources I’ve spoken with the Arab backing for Allawi paled in comparison to the massive support that Iran provided for its friends in the Iraqi National Alliance. The INA was assembled directly in Tehran, last summer, when scads of INA representatives traveled to Tehran, to the sick bed of the late Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of ISCI, whose son, Ammar al-Hakim, now runs the party. Top Iranian politicians such as Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, who is an Iraqi (born in Najaf), and the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, brokered the deals that re-assembled the INA — including the key deal, mending fences between Sadr and Hakim. Iran also put strong pressure on Maliki to join INA, but for personal reasons he refused.