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Chaotic start to Iraq's election recount

Electoral workers transport ballot boxes to a recount
Millions of votes will be counted out by hand in a process that could take weeks

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Baghdad

The recount from the Iraqi election got off to a chaotic start, as observers from political parties thronged into two rooms at the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's Green Zone.

There were heated exchanges between representatives from Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's State of Law coalition and officials from the Electoral Commission over access to the proceedings.

Other observers also complained of a lack of transparency.

"It's disorganised," said Saih Obaid, watching the recount for the Iraqi Communist Party.

"We were made to wait outside for two hours."


You're counting a bag of rice here - so will the vote come out identical?

Gary Grappo
US Embassy

Eventually, all the observers were allowed into the hall, and the proceedings settled into a repetitive pattern.

Each of the sealed plastic boxes is dusted down and re-opened. Every single ballot paper is recounted by hand.

Once the count is complete, the box is re-sealed with green tape, and placed to one side.

Any discrepancies or signs of tampering are marked with red tape.

The process will be repeated thousands of times over the next three weeks, with about 2.5 million ballots to be counted in total.

Transparency

Maarten Halff, a United Nations observer, said the recount appeared to be going well despite some teething problems.

Hussain al-Shahristani, (l), and Election commission chief Faraj al-Haidari (r)
There were heated exchanges between the State of Law coalition and officials

"The transparency is clearly there," he said. "The agents (from the political parties) have very good access to the tables. They're very close, they can see exactly what's happening. If they have any concerns, there's a good number of supervisors in this room they can raise it with."

The 7 March vote returned an inconclusive result. No single party or coalition gained enough votes to form a government on its own.

Provisional results showed the two front-runners separated by a margin of just two seats.

At stake in this recount are 68 seats, covering all the votes cast in the Baghdad area. Even a small difference in the outcome could have significant consequences.

Gary Grappo, a senior official at the US embassy in Baghdad likened the process to "counting a bag of rice", saying there were bound to be small discrepancies with the original count.

Political limbo

But both the United Nations and the United States gave the original election a clean bill of health.

Neither believes the recount will significantly alter the outcome.

But in the febrile atmosphere of speculation and political name-calling that has followed the election, any inconsistencies are likely to be seized upon by the political factions vying for power.

But many Iraqis believe the whole process is designed simply to give politicians more time to consolidate their positions before coalition negotiations begin in earnest.

This is a view echoed in private by some international observers.

The recount comes amid of legal challenges to several candidates which could further alter the political landscape.

Meanwhile, Iraq remains in a precarious state of political limbo.



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