Behind the row over Iraqi election lie far deeper fears about a new era of violence, writes Salah Hemeid
Warning that the country could descend into violence, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki called for a nationwide recount of votes in this month's parliamentary election after partial results showed a neck-and-neck race between his coalition and that of former prime minister Iyad Allawi.
Although Al-Maliki received backing from the country's President Jalal Talabani and two other rival blocs for the recount, the electoral commission quickly rejected the request as neither legally nor technically feasible. "We can't start all over again and count all the votes manually," said Faraj Al-Haidari, head of the Independent High Electoral Commission.
Election officials have also pointed out that the count is being monitored by international observers, as well as by representatives of each political party.
With 95 per cent of the votes counted, Al-Maliki's electoral list was a few thousand votes behind that of Allawi's. The lead has switched several times between Allawi's cross-sectarian coalition and Al-Maliki's mainly Shia State of Law alliance, signalling a close result, whoever comes out on top.
Even after international monitors said the balloting and vote count has been fair, Al-Maliki's party insisted that the vote counting has been marred by fraud and irregularities. His aides cited staffing boxes with ballots by Allawi's supporters and tampering with computer votes counting by hackers.
The allegations sparked angry demonstrations by Al-Maliki's supporters in Baghdad and several Shia cities where protesters demand a recount. Allawi's supporters counterattacked, accusing Al-Maliki of intimidation and threatening the election commission.
Al-Maliki's remarks about the possibility of a renewal of violence alarmed many Iraqis and brought harsh memories of the sectarian tension that had inflamed communal hostilities following the 2003 US-led invasion. Hours after Al-Maliki's warning a spate of attacks across Iraq killed several people while eight officials or leaders of the pro- government militias called Sahwa Councils were assassinated by gunmen.
On Wednesday gunmen riding in two cars shot dead five Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint in the Radwaniya, a Sunni suburb of Baghdad. Iraqi forces arrested 17 suspects in the area near Baghdad international airport.
To be sure, however, a prolonged dispute over the tally of the election or a delay in forming a new government will cast doubt on the validity of the elections and create a political vacuum. That will not only put Iraq's transition to democracy at risk but will incite fears of a political crisis in a country already torn by a sectarian divide.
So as frustrations grow among Iraqis, the question remains as to whether their politicians will be prudent enough to put their power struggle aside and try to accept the election results and the rules of the democratic game.
In this regard, being only a few thousand votes apart does not mean that the seat allocation for Allawi's and Al-Maliki's blocs in the next parliament will be equally close or make the two men eligible for the post of the primer minister.
Under the complicated consensus-oriented Iraqi election law, the winner of the popular vote will not necessarily emerge with the biggest tally of parliamentary seats, which are awarded province by province.
Moreover, none of the frontrunners in the 7 March election will take a majority of the seats in the new 325-member assembly, making some kind of coalition inevitable.
There have been some signs that the two front-runners were reaching out to other political parties ahead of the declaration of complete results on Friday, signalling the start of jockeying to form the next ruling coalition.
Allawi has been holding talks with Kurdish leaders while members of his bloc are meeting with members of the Shia Iraqi National Alliance (INA) in an attempt to convince them to form a broad-based coalition that could form the next government. That alliance would drive a wedge among the Shia groups, many of which accuse Allawi as being a Baathist front, and could even spark a Shia internecine fighting.
Also, representatives of Al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition (SLC) have started discussions with their counterparts from INA for a merger. Although followers of Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who scored most of INA's seats, have flatly rejected any alliance with Al-Maliki, a union between the two manly Shia groups, which are among the top three vote- getters in the election, could sideline the mainly Sunni-backed Allawi alliance.
That could widen Iraq's sectarian divide even further as Sunnis will realise that they are being marginalised again, setting back Iraq's fragile security gains following years of sectarian warfare that killed tens of thousands of people.
On the other hand, the Kurds are insisting that they are key to forming any government, but they are putting forward unrealistic demands including the annexation of oil rich Kirkuk, and the appointment of Talabani to a third term as president. Arab Sunnis have rejected these demands, jeopardising any chance for allying the Kurds in a coalition government.
As for the United States, which plans to halve the number of its troops in Iraq by the end of August and withdraw completely before 2012, the crisis is a great challenge to its ability to help defusing the crisis. A valid election and smooth transition to a new government are seen as pivotal for the legacy of the American war in Iraq.
American Commander in Iraq Ray Odierno and US Ambassador Christopher Hill met with Al-Maliki on Monday to discuss his demand for a recount. The two officials made no statements but Iraqi media suggested that they warned Al-Maliki against failure to hand over power peacefully in case he was not picked as the next prime minister.
US military leaders have allegedly been watching voting centres in case Al-Maliki should use the military to force a recount. The move followed reports that Al-Maliki has allegedly threatened to arrest members of the election commission and reports that he put the army and police on a state of alert in anticipation of violence.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq dismissed the election results and warned that it will continue its jihad against Iraq's Americans and the Iraqi government. "We announce that the election outcome means nothing to us... We will continue chasing the [American] occupier and his agents until we purify the land from their filth," said Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi, the self- proclaimed leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, an Al-Qaeda offshoot.