AFP April 19, 2010, 9:20 pm
BAGHDAD (AFP) - The result of Iraq's election was thrown wide open Monday when a judicial panel ordered that ballots cast in Baghdad be manually recounted in a surprise move that could affect who leads the country.
The decision came after an appeal by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who, according to unofficial results, narrowly lost the March 7 vote to his rival and former premier Iyad Allawi.
Baghdad, with a total of 70 seats, was by far the biggest prize for parties competing in the second national election since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, which will eventually lead to a new parliament comprising 325 MPs.
Although Maliki, a Shiite, came out ahead in the capital -- winning 26 seats to Allawi's 24 -- he alleged there had been manipulation in voting stations and that he had lost a total of 750,000 votes in five provinces, including Baghdad.
The recount could lead to a wider winning margin for the incumbent premier in the capital, allowing him to eventually overturn his 89-91 defeat nationally to Allawi's secular Iraqiya coalition.
"The judicial panel decided to recount the votes in Baghdad," said Hamdiyah al-Husseini, of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), whose colleague, Iyad al-Kenani, confirmed it would be a manual recount.
Under the Iraqi constitution, Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, as the election's victors, was entitled to first crack at forming a government but he has so far failed to do so.
Were Maliki, who has also struggled to win backing from other parties -- including former allies in the Iraqi National Alliance, the country's largest religious political grouping -- to gain seats he could yet come out ahead.
A key Maliki ally said the recount was a direct result of the State of Law's appeal and that it expected to gain seats.
"The committee discussed all the documents and evidence that prove that there was some manipulation in voting stations," said Hassen al-Senaed, a State of Law parliamentarian.
"We expect an increase in our number of seats in Baghdad. The manipulation included the changing of signatures and the removal of names and numbers and changing of ballots," he said.
The judicial panel that ordered the Baghdad recount was established by IHEC to handle complaints from aggrieved parties about the conduct of the election.
"The appeal committee was convinced on the basis of the evidence and they took the decision to recount in all stations in Baghdad," Senaed added.
No one from Iraqiya, led by former Shiite premier Allawi but regarded as a secular coalition that won strong support in Sunni provinces, was immediately available for comment.
UN special representative to Iraq Ad Melkert last month described the polls as "credible" after the IHEC said there was no evidence of systematic or widespread fraud in the ballot count.
A total tally last month said Maliki won 903,360 votes in Baghdad, compared with Iraqiya's 841,755. The National Alliance (INA), a strongly Shiite grouping, won 561,659 votes, according to the unofficial results.
The recount is likely to add to the sense of political instability apparent in Iraq since last month's inconclusive election.
With neither Allawi nor Maliki gaining anywhere near the 163 seats necessary to form a government on their own, the weeks since have been dominated by talks with smaller parties, some with close ties to Iran, to build a coalition.
Among those whose support the pair, the main candidates for the prime minister's post, have been jostling for is that of the Sadrist movement of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr, who has been in self-imposed exile in Iran for the past three years, however, has issued several statements in recent weeks criticising Maliki.