But since it's clear that the United Iraqi Alliance has won well over 50 percent, and probably closer to two-thirds of the national vote, it is they who will decide on the government. And the 21-member executive committee of the Alliance, popularly known as the Shia List, has been meeting all week to hammer out the transition so it's ready once the count is complete. With a four-to-one lead in the preliminary results over their next nearest rival, the incumbent Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the Shia can pretty much do as they wish.

The formal counting has been proceeding in slow motion, with technical problems delaying vote tallies from the most troubled provinces in the Sunni Triangle (Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala) and Mosul (Nineveh), plus the three Kurdish provinces in the north. But a NEWSWEEK analysis of partial returns, provided by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) on Feb. 4, suggests strongly that the Alliance has won a landslide victory by an even-larger margin than expected.

The Alliance was put together under the supervision of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who openly urged his Shia followers to vote for it. Everyone expected it to be the biggest vote-getter, but their opponents hoped that Allawi and others among the 223 parties would draw enough votes to keep the Shia from gaining an absolute majority. But based on these partial returns, representing 3.2 million of the 8.3 million Iraqis who voted (a 58 percent turnout of eligible voters), 69 percent chose the Alliance, compared to 18 percent for Allawi, the only other serious contender outside of Kurdistan. Even though these early returns are mostly from the heavily Shia provinces, they also include 45 percent of the polling places in Baghdad, which are mixed Sunni and Shia. And they do not include returns from most of Basra province, which is heavily Shia.

The IECI refuses to make any projections and stresses that the vote tallies released so far are not a representative sample of the votes in those provinces or nationwide. Notwithstanding the caveat, there seems little likelihood there will be any great surprises in store when the rest of the votes are counted. Voting was light in the Sunni Triangle, because of fear of attacks by insurgents, and the same applied in Mosul. And totals in such Sunni areas, where sympathy for the resistance is strong, are unlikely to add much to Allawi's numbers, because of his close association with the American military. In Kurdistan, turnout was healthy, but not as high as in the south (70 percent compared to 90 percent); furthermore, most Kurdish voters are expected to vote for the Kurdistan List, rather than for Allawi or the Shia.

Politicians on the Alliance are wasting no time getting down to the business of working out a government. Seats in the National Assembly are awarded on national proportionality; that is, each party slate on the ballot is awarded the number of seats proportional to its vote nationwide. Thus if the Alliance wins 60 percent of the final vote, it will get 60 percent of the seats in the 275-person assembly, or 165 seats. That will put Allawi a distant third to the Kurds, who expect to win 75 seats. Only a majority is needed to choose the government, (although the president, deputy presidents and prime minister must be chosen by a two-thirds majority.) Then the next step will be to form a national constitutional convention and draft a constitution, under which a permanent government will be elected; for that to be approved and sent to the voters in a referendum, the assembly needs to muster a two-thirds vote, and it's just possible the Alliance will attain that with only minimal coalition building.

These are not the results American officials had hoped for. They projected that the Shia List would win something less than an absolute majority, in the range of 110-120 seats, making it necessary for them to form alliances with other parties, including Allawi, the Kurds and secular independents, which they theorized would help moderate Shia policies. While the Alliance is itself a coalition of diverse elements, it's dominated by the Shia religious parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and two factions of the al Dawa party--all of which have previously called for an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Iraq. And the others on that list were handpicked by Sistani, through a six-member committee that he formed for that purpose; one of the things they had to do was pledge to vote as a bloc.

Will that Alliance hold together as it had pledged to do? The first strong indication of this will come with the Big Bang, probably the same day the final results are announced; the IECI says this would be no later than 10 days after the Jan. 30 elections, meaning Feb. 9, but it could come a few days sooner. Here are the leading candidates for the job of prime minister:

Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear physicist and intimate of Sistani, and one of the six-man committee that formed the Alliance, was in Najaf on Friday meeting with the Ayatollah. Shahristani had been UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's choice for prime minister of the interim government, but American pressure forced the selection of Allawi instead.

Ibrahim Jafari, currently the vice president of the interim government and leader of the largest Dawa party, is widely popular among Shias. He has let it be known he won't be vice president again, but wants the top job.

Adel Abdul Mehdi is currently the minister of finance in the interim government, and is likely to have the backing of SCIRI, the biggest of the Shia political parties. Mehdi has scored high points for helping win forgiveness for 80 percent of Iraq's foreign debt.

Incumbent Iyad Allawi has seen his popularity plummet during seven months in office, but his party had the second strongest showing after the Alliance, and some see him as a compromise choice.

"I think it will be one of those four ... if the list holds together," says Zuhair Hamadi, secretary general of the cabinet in the interim government, a civil servant who hopes to be serving whoever comes into office. Alliance officials express a variety of views on the personalities, partly because many of their candidates have not yet met together to discuss it--though their 21-member executive committee has been meeting regularly.

One committee member says he expects the Alliance will offer the presidency to a Sunni Arab, even though the Sunnis boycotted the election. As Shahristani puts it, "Anybody can be invited to join the government." Government ministers do not have to have been elected to the assembly, as in some parliamentary systems.

A popular scenario then would be Jafari as speaker of the assembly, and two Kurdish officials as deputy presidents, plus a Sunni outsider as president. But the Kurds have insisted it is they who should have the presidency, since they did participate in the elections, and that Iraq should not be considered a country with three major groups--Sunni Arab, Shia Arab and Sunni Kurd, but rather one with two ethnic groups, Arab and Kurd. That's the view espoused by Mowaffaq Rubaie, national security adviser and a member of the Alliance's executive committee.

It goes almost without saying that the most powerful job, prime minister, will go to a Shia. Many of the key figures in the Alliance have publicly pledged that none of the executive members of the new government will be religious clerics, which rules out the powerful leader of SCIRI, Abdul Aziz Hakim. This "no turbans" policy is not one that all Shia leaders subscribe to, even though Sistani has insisted on it, according to Shahristani. In an interview, the powerful Baghdad Shia cleric, Sheikh Jalaladin al Saghir, tells NEWSWEEK he doesn't think clerics should be ruled out, though that doesn't mean an Islamic state. "The most important thing is to look into their qualifications," he says. "With a turban or without a turban, though, we are not thinking of a religious government."

Another bone of contention is whether service in the American and UN-selected interim government is a kiss of death for applicants to the post-Big Bang administration. Shahristani is one of those who thinks it is, particularly in the case of Allawi. "He is the U.S.-backed candidate," says Shahristani. "Nothing could be done [in his government] without U.S. approval. The Iraqi people have showed they can do things without U.S. approval." Of course, Shahristani himself would be the main beneficiary of such a policy; Jafari, Mehdi and Allawi are all in the present government.

However this plays out, the Shia community will enjoy unprecedented power, after decades as Iraq's underdogs. How they choose to use it will become clear moments after the Big Bang. "The Sunni Problem is the new buzzword," says the present deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, a Kurd. "They have a lack of credible leadership." Finding that Sunni leadership and bringing it into the government will prove a challenge rather greater than converting an already big majority into a landslide.