War-ravaged Fallujah ran out of ballots as high voter turnout prompted election officials across Iraq to keep many polling stations open an extra hour. Iraqi insurgents had imposed a de facto cease-fire, with masked members setting up checkpoints west of Baghdad to keep al-Qaeda from bombing voting sites. In addition to this day of relative peace in Iraq--reported attacks were well below average-- the Dec. 15 vote bore another marked contrast to January's violent election day: Sunni Arabs didn't boycott this time and instead turned out en masse, with the hope of tipping the scales of Iraqi political power. With a significant voting bloc in parliament--final results are due to be released by the end of December--Sunnis would be able to curb the influence of the Shi'ite religious parties and perhaps muster enough bargaining power to fill key Cabinet positions. One coveted slot: Interior Minister, as allegations emerge of Shi'ite militias using the police to target Sunnis.
Once parliament is in session, the loose alliances that grouped candidates together on election lists could well melt away as backroom haggling begins. And because the constitution requires only a 50% vote of no confidence to dissolve the government, it's possible the first Prime Minister and Cabinet won't stay in power anywhere close to their four-year terms. That means the biggest threat to the fledgling democracy may be political gridlock. A Pentagon official monitoring Iraq acknowledges that a weak administration could invite a coup. But that risk, says the official, "may just be one of the albatrosses the system has to bear."