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Recount demands may spell trouble for Iraq's elections

Election officials count votes in Baghdad
The counting phase of the election is drawing to a close but the real goal of building a coalition government may be way off

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East Analyst

With most of the votes counted following the Iraqi parliamentary elections on 7 March, there's considerable uncertainty over the outcome - and whether the losers will accept it.

It's a highly sensitive situation - and one the Obama administration in Washington is watching anxiously.

Its deadline for the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq is only five months away and the the 7 March elections were supposed to pave the way to a smooth transition.

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Instead they've shown up the fragility of Iraq's political process.

Of the four main blocs that competed in the elections, two are running neck and neck.

According to results released on Sunday - a fortnight after the poll - only 11,000 votes separate the two front-runners.

Iyad Allawi's secular-nationalist bloc (known as Iraqiya) has a narrow lead.

And that's led Prime Minister Nouri Maliki - head of the State of Law coalition - to call for a recount.

That call was swiftly rejected by the electoral commission, which continues to insist - in the face of numerous complaints of irregularities - that the elections were essentially free and fair.

Maliki's threat

Fearing that victory may be slipping from his grasp, Mr Maliki has warned of possible violence if his demand for a recount is not met.

Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki (l) challenger Iyad Allawi (r)
Its still to close to between Mr Maliki and Mr Allawi

Many are interpreting this to mean that, unless the final result is to his liking, he'll refuse to give up power.

Ironically, both front-runners are from Iraq's Shia Arab majority.

But Mr Maliki is an Islamist who's tried to re-brand himself a nationalist and a staunch defender of law and order.

Iyad Allawi's appeal, in contrast, is to more secular Iraqis who feel the Islamists have failed to deliver.

In particular, Mr Allawi - a former prime minister - has become the voice of the Sunni Arab areas north and west of Baghdad.

The Sunni Arabs boycotted the last elections in 2005 - but this time showed how determined they are to claim their share of power and influence.

This means that any attempt to exclude Mr Allawi's bloc would be fraught with danger.

Disgruntled Kurds

It's not only Nouri Maliki and his allies who are unhappy with the current tally of votes - the Kurds are upset, too.

Mr Allawi's Iraqiya bloc currently has a narrow lead over the Kurdish parties in the disputed, oil-rich province of Kirkuk and the Iraqi president, veteran Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani, has joined calls for a recount.

Observers have been quick to note that candidates only cry foul when they're behind, not when they're ahead.

There may be only five per cent of the votes still to be counted - with final results due to be announced on 26 March - but that five per cent could prove decisive.

Two dangers lie ahead: that the final count will be hotly disputed, leading to tension and confusion; and that - whatever the final tally - months, rather than weeks, of political horse-trading will ensue, as one or other bloc tries to cobble together a viable coalition.

It is scarcely the outcome the Americans, or for that matter the Iraqis, had hoped for.



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