Iraqi prime minister's bloc demands halt to partial vote recount an hour after it starts

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Iraqi prime minister's coalition cried foul just one hour into a partial vote recount that began Monday and demanded the process be halted, the latest political tussle delaying the formation of an Iraqi government in the aftermath of the close election.

The recount of roughly 2.5 million votes cast March 7 in the capital was demanded by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, which narrowly lost to a bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi that enjoyed heavy Sunni support. It has further stalled any formation of a government, raising fears that violence will increase as U.S. forces withdraw this summer.

Raider Visser, who closely follows Iraqi politics for the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said it is doubtful the recount will alter the outcome.

"The only thing that they're (State of Law) achieving is the postponement of government formation," he said. "It doesn't seem very realistic. It seems more like a protest."

Al-Maliki demanded recounts in five provinces and got one in Baghdad; it is expected to take about two weeks.

But shortly after election workers began to carefully tally ballots under the watchful eye of observers, representatives from the prime minister's State of Law held a news conference railing against the recount.

They alleged the commission wasn't conducting it properly since it was not reopening voter records and checking voter signatures against ballots.

State of Law official and Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani also demanded election commission officials be held accountable for manipulating the votes and that the recount be halted.

As the news conference wound down, a tiff between election commission chief Faraj al-Haidari and al-Shahristani erupted, with the two men raising their voices and wagging fingers at each other as journalists crowded around.

State TV cut their live transmission of the event but the spat continued with bodyguards physically keeping journalists at bay.

At one point, al-Shahristani told the election commission official if the demands of al-Maliki's coalition were not met, there would be a crisis and the commission would be to blame.

Khalid al-Assadi, a spokesman for al-Maliki's coalition, later clarified that the minister meant there would be even more legal challenges to the courts and the process would drag out even longer.

In the end, the prime minister's bloc presented a complaint to a court overseeing election disputes. If the court rules in their favor, the votes counted Monday would have to be recounted — essentially resulting in a recount of the recount.

An Iraqiya spokesman, Abdul-Rahman al-Budeir, said State of Law's demands will only succeed in delaying formation of the new government.

"We are not worried if the recount is conducted in an honest and professional way," he said, adding that he did not think the results would change.

During his own news conference, Al-Haidari vowed the commission would not bow to pressure.

No party won a clear parliamentary majority in the election, and extended political haggling hasn't resulted in a coalition with enough seats to govern.

If the recount alters the results, it could infuriate Iraq's once-dominant Sunni Arab minority, which is already wary of al-Maliki's Shiite-led government and what they see as efforts to steal the election.

The United Nations, the U.S. Embassy, and the Arab League as well as Iraqi election officials have all declared the election free of systematic fraud.

Al-Maliki has vociferously challenged the results which gave him 89 of 325 seats in parliament, trailing close behind Allawi's bloc of 91 seats. In addition to the recount, he's benefited from — some say actively encouraged — the actions of a Shiite-led commission responsible for vetting candidates for links to Saddam Hussein's former regime.

The commission has recommended disqualifying several of Allawi's candidates and throwing out their votes. A court has already dismissed 52 candidates, including one winner, and a decision on several others is still pending.

A senior U.S. Embassy official, Gary Grappo, told reporters in a briefing Sunday before the recount began that the U.S. is concerned about the commission and what he called "its efforts to alter the results of a legitimate election."


Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub and Lara Jakes contributed to this report.