A narrow victory — 91 seats for Allawi, 89 for Maliki, with a recount on the way — but a huge upset nonetheless. This has the makings of a Category Five clusterfark, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, but let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge two bits of good news. One: Allawi ran as a secularist candidate and Maliki as a “religious” candidate — and the secularist won, thanks in part to Sunni voters who naturally preferred a less theocratic Shiite to a more theocratic one. So yes, even in the heart of the Middle East, not only is it possible for a secular candidate to win elections but it’s possible for him to do it on a cross-sectarian vote. In Iraq! Two: The idea of unseating a sitting ruler must be a revelation to Iraqis after 30 years of Saddam, and an immeasurable boost of confidence in the integrity of their electoral system. Given the amount of corruption in the government, they must have expected that Maliki would simply fix the results. Surprise. “Iraqis can see that their votes mean something,” writes IraqPundit. “This really is an amazing day.” Indeed.

But an ominous one too.

Maliki said Friday that he would not accept the results of the election. His supporters, claiming massive fraud, had demanded a manual recount of votes cast in the March 7 election even before the tally was finished, but the election commission said there was no basis for a recount. A top United Nations official in Iraq also said the elections were credible and urged all sides to accept the results…

Maliki had tried to distance himself from his sectarian roots and portray himself as a nationalist who helped to stabilize the country after years of violence. But his support for a ban on hundreds of candidates with alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party undercut support from Sunnis, who felt it unfairly targeted their candidates.

Sunnis threw their weight behind Allawi, a secular Shiite and former interim prime minister who has built a coalition from both Islamic sects. Allawi’s anti-Iran stance appeals to Sunnis wary of Tehran’s influence over Iraq’s Shiite-majority government.

Maliki’s advisers have warned against challenging the election results for fear of violence from the country’s Shiite majority. Others say there could be a risk of renewed sectarian conflict if the Sunni minority feels alienated from a coalition government.

Note that this doesn’t mean Allawi is the new prime minister, only that he’ll get a chance to make a deal with other blocs — certainly the Sunnis and, perhaps, the Kurds, unless they hold his Baathist past against him — to build a majority in parliament. But never mind that. The greatest thing Maliki could do for his country, obviously, would be to bite the bullet here and set a precedent for a peaceful transfer of power. He can still do it, assuming he accepts the results of the recount, but he’s going to put the country on edge in the meantime for obvious reasons. And if he doesn’t accept the recount? Well, then it’s clusterfark time: Secular American-aligned Shiites vs. religious Iran-aligned Shiites (believe it or not, the Sadrists may play kingmaker in parliament) vs. a Sunni population that’ll feel disenfranchised and disgruntled anew that the election’s being stolen from their favored candidate. If this vote is FUBARed, who knows how many Iraqis will ever trust the system to vote again. And if shooting breaks out, who knows if there’ll ever again be an election.

So, stakes is high. If, like me, you’ve been tuned out of Iraq news for awhile, it’s time to tune back in because the next few weeks will be a crucible. For your further viewing, here’s Richard Engel dissecting the maneuvering going on right now. Note the reference to Iran “stirring the pot” against Allawi, which is bound to become a bargaining chip as the White House moves against them with new nuke sanctions.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy