- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2010

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s president on Sunday called for a recount in this month’s parliamentary elections, which have turned into a tight race between the prime minister and a secular rival amid accusations of fraud. A new count could further extend political wrangling in the contentious race.

The demand from President Jalal Talabani came a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared to back the idea by calling on the election commission overseeing the counting to respond quickly to requests from political blocs for a recount.

The demands are the latest twist to an election that will determine who will govern the country as U.S. troops go home. Counting since the March 7 vote has been slow and plagued with confusion and disarray, fueling claims of fraud, though international observers have said the vote and count have been fair.

Mr. Talabani, in a statement on his Web site Sunday, demanded an immediate recount to “preclude any doubt and misunderstanding” in the results.

“As the president of the state, authorized to preserve the constitution and to ensure justice and absolute transparency, I demand the Independent High Electoral Commission recount the ballots manually starting from Sunday, March 21,” Mr. Talabani said.

Mr. al-Maliki, whose bloc is among those seeking a recount, issued a statement late Saturday calling on the commission to respond to the demands, saying that doing so quickly would “protect the democratic experiment and maintain the credibility of elections.”

“Because there are demands from many political blocs to repeat the counting,” Mr. al-Maliki said, the election commission should “respond urgently to these demands in order to preserve the political stability and avoid the deterioration of security … and a return to violence.”

It remained unclear what the demands by Mr. Talabani and Mr. al-Maliki would produce, since the electoral commission is an independent body appointed byPparliament. Also, election results have to be certified by the Supreme Court after all complaints have been reviewed.

The latest partial results, released Saturday, showed Mr. al-Maliki’s secular Shi’ite challenger, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, pulling ahead again by a slim margin over the prime minister’s coalition in the overall tally.

However, Mr. al-Maliki is winning in seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces, which is significant because parliamentary seats are allotted based on the outcome of voting in each province.

Both Mr. Allawi’s Iraqiya list and Mr. al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition have alleged fraud in the counting, though many blocs’ claims sometimes have appeared to reflect how well they are doing in the tally.

Maysoun al-Damlouji, a spokeswoman for Mr. Allawi’s bloc, said neither Mr. al-Maliki nor Mr. Talabani has the authority to order a recount. She urged the prime minister “not to use his influence to change” the election results.

“There are well-known, legal ways to appeal election results,” she said. “I hope that all will accept the election outcome in a spirit of good sportsmanship.”

This is the first time Mr. Talabani, a Kurd, has weighed in on the counting process. His party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, has been under heavy pressure from a new political party on the Kurdish scene, Gorran, which has been making inroads in the Kurdish province Sulaimaniyah, once a PUK stronghold.

Moreover, results so far have shown that the Kurdish Alliance, composed of the PUK and the other main Kurdish political party, is narrowly losing to Iraqiya in the key Tamim province in the north. The province is home to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds. A win for Iraqiya would be a blow for Kurdish claims on the city.

Mr. al-Maliki’s bloc earlier this week accused the electoral commission’s counting center of doctoring the numbers and demanded a recount.

The calls for a recount appear to be stirring tensions. In the city of Najaf in Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated south, hundreds of residents protested Sunday outside the local government office to demand a manual recount of the elections. They carried banners saying, “No to stealing our votes.”

The rally took place as governors from nine Shi’ite heartland provinces and Baghdad met inside the building. They issued a statement backing the recount calls by Mr. Talabani and Mr. al-Maliki.

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