To allay fears that sectarian tensions in Iraq could worsen in the aftermath of Sunday's elections, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi says he will start a national dialogue to ensure that all minority groups have a voice in Iraq's next government.
A day after landmark elections in which millions of Iraqis went to the polls despite insurgent threats and suicide bombings, Interim Prime Minister Allawi urged the people to pull together to unite the country.
Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Allawi said the world is watching Iraq, as it enters what he termed a "new phase" in Iraqi history.
"Those who have cast their votes, or those who have not, our mission is to rebuild our country, based on a secure and prosperous foundation," Mr. Allawi said. "Time has come to put aside all the problems, disunity that the former regime was known for."
Iraq's Shi'ite Muslims and minority Kurds overwhelmed many polling centers across the country on Sunday to take part in the country's first democratic elections in 50 years.
Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of the population, but were brutally oppressed under Saddam Hussein and his Sunni Baath Party, were especially supportive of the polls. The election process to choose a new 275-member National Assembly virtually guarantees that Shi'ites, now will play a dominant political role in Iraq.
In contrast, many Sunni Arabs had called for a delay in the elections. They argued that security in the country needed to improve before Sunni voters could feel safe enough to go to the polls. Other Sunni Arabs, including Iraqi militants, called for an outright boycott, fearing that Shi'ites would win no matter what, and would not share power with those long seen as their oppressors.
Preliminary surveys from polling centers show that national turnout was low among the country's five million Sunni Arabs. That has prompted warnings from several countries that sectarian divisions could widen dangerously in Iraq, if measures are not taken to ensure Sunni participation.
On Monday, Prime Minister Allawi indicated that he would take the lead in trying to bring disaffected Sunnis into the political process of drafting a new constitution for Iraq.
"During the remainder of my term, I will start a national dialogue to guarantee the presence of a vote for all Iraqis in the next government," Mr. Allawi said. "As we worked together yesterday to end a dictatorship, let us go forward toward a better future. Shi'ites, Sunni Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, may God protect Iraq and all its people."
Meanwhile, as Iraqis wait for final voting results to be announced in the next nine days or so, U.S. and British officials warn that insurgent violence could escalate again.
There is fear that the leader of the al-Qaida terrorist group in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and other militants opposed to the polls, may try to seek revenge on Iraqis who voted and on coalition and Iraqi security forces who worked together for weeks ahead of the elections to thwart potential attacks.
A total of 30 civilians and six security members were killed in election day violence. But government officials say, thanks to the efforts of multi-national and Iraqi forces, the number of casualties and attacks were far below what had been feared.