BAGHDAD — Iraq's political process lurched toward crisis yesterday as the country's prime minister, president and interior minister threw their weight behind a ballot-by-ballot recount of the nation's parliamentary elections.
In addition, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose election slate is locked in a tight race with that of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, invoked his military powers as Iraq's commander in chief to insist that the Independent High Electoral Commission respond to the recount demand. He warned a failure to do so risked a return to the bloodshed that ripped the country asunder two years ago.
The prime minister insisted the credibility of the election was in danger, after his election bloc filed a fraud complaint last week that called for re-tallying all the votes.
The Iraqi election commission defended its results in a news conference Sunday night and said it did not intend a ballot-by-ballot recount. It expects final results Friday.
The commission also hit back at critics. "To come now and make allegations against the IHEC, I don't think this serves the interests of that person, or the elections process and even the political progression as a whole," said Faraj Haidari, the head of the commission.
In his statement released Sunday, al-Maliki said a response from the electoral commission to demands for a recount was necessary "(in order) to safeguard the political stability and to prevent the slipping of the security situation in the country and the resurgence of violence that was defeated only after efforts, sufferings and bloodshed."
Later, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh, a member of al-Maliki's electoral bloc, said, "We are not asking for new elections, but only a recount because there are worries about this process."
Suspicions and doubts about the elections pose a serious challenge to the United States' plan to withdrawal all but 50,000 troops from Iraq by the end of August. The recount demand comes despite statements from the U.S. Embassy and the United Nations that the election had been carried out in a credible fashion.
With 95 percent of the vote counted, the race between al-Maliki and Allawi to lead the biggest bloc in parliament remained too close to call. The vote has generated sectarian tensions, with al-Maliki presenting himself as the Shiite candidate in the hopes of defeating Allawi, a secular Shiite whose coalition includes many Sunni Arabs from Saddam Hussein's toppled regime. The two politicians have swapped the lead several times as election results continue to be counted. On Sunday night, Allawi appeared to be ahead by 11,000 votes nationwide.
Al-Maliki, who has angered many Iraqi political leaders through his accumulation of power in the last four years, could very well be edged out by Allawi even if his slate wins the popular vote. Allawi, who was similarly accused of authoritarian tendencies while in office in 2004, could out maneuver al-Maliki to form the next government.
That prospect has angered al-Maliki's political circle, which believes the country's Shiite majority would reject an Allawi government.
The demands for a recount were backed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The president's Kurdistan Alliance has battled Allawi's slate for seats in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which the Kurds hope to annex to the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan. Allawi's list has also trumped the Kurds in Nineveh and Diyala provinces, where the Kurds also have ambitions to annex territories lost to them during Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime that ended with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
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Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, who is with the cross-sectarian Iraqi Unity Alliance, fared poorly in election results thus far released. He accused unidentified politicians of inflating voter registration numbers by as much as 12 percent.
"There was the possibility of treating this (situation) before we reached this stage. People want no more than their rights," Bolani said in an interview. A senior member of Allawi's electoral slate, Iraqiya, who asked not to be identified, accused rivals of trying to steal the election through a recount. He worried al-Maliki might try to declare a state of emergency, or that violence could erupt. "Everything is possible now," he said.
The U.S. military has been watching voting tally centers in case al-Maliki sought to use his security forces to impose a recount, a senior U.S. officer said on condition of anonymity.
Before the March 7 vote, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill warned about the danger of sore losers in a country emerging from decades of war and dictatorship. Those fears could come to haunt the Americans as Iraq's main political players question the credibility of the voting process, which was meant to be the foundation of a new democracy.
The political tussle could delay formation of a new government for months.
If the process is discredited then the election is up in the air and we have nothing," a Western advisor to the Iraqi government said. The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, refused to rule out the possibility of al-Maliki declaring martial law.
"The dark side is very dark. You can't dismiss it. It's improbable but you can't dismiss it," the official said. "I don't know of any other cases in four years where al-Maliki has threatened to use his power as a commander of chief politically."
(Raheem Salman and Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.)
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