- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

BAGHDAD | Partial vote results in Iraq’s election released Thursday showed a tight contest between the nation’s prime minister and a secular challenger during a chaotic count that was marred by accusations of fraud.

The preliminary tallies from five of Iraq’s 18 provinces were considered setbacks to hard-line religious Shi’ite political leaders who hailed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s early victories in two southern provinces deep on their turf.

Mr. al-Maliki’s top secular rival, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, meanwhile, appeared to be drawing on Sunni support north of Baghdad. But results for the big prize - Baghdad - have yet to be counted and released.

At stake in the vote held Sunday is the right to guide Iraq’s shaky stability as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw.

The partial results from the Independent High Electoral Commission were released in a chaotic monitoring room in Baghdad. Tallies from the rest of the nation are likely to be released over the coming days.

No bloc was expected to gain an outright majority, meaning those that do well will have to negotiate to form alliances and choose a prime minister. In an effort to cast himself as an inclusive leader for all Iraqis, Mr. al-Maliki quit the main Shi’ite coalition last year to create the State of Law alliance, which includes some Sunni groups.

Election officials said they had received about 1,000 complaints about the election process, although they gave no details. Mr. Allawi’s coalition, Iraqiya, described what they said were numerous instances of fraud, including “unjustifiable and illegal procedures to distort the will of the people.”

With only a third of the vote counted, Mr. al-Maliki was leading in the mainly Shi’ite provinces of Babil and Najaf, where his rivals in a Shi’ite religious coalition had hoped to make gains. Iraqiya, meanwhile, took the lead in the former Sunni insurgent strongholds of Diyala and Salahuddin, where only 17 percent of the vote was tallied by late Thursday.

Results released from a fifth province, Irbil, showed the Kurdish Alliance, which joins the two main Kurdish parties, beating the upstart Kurdish party Gorran in the self-ruled territory.

Amid the confusion and counting, political parties and election monitors began raising concerns about fraud. Iraqiya issued a statement late Thursday saying security forces were turned away from the polls, political parties interfered with the balloting process and vote tallies were not announced and posted at each polling station as required.

Additionally, a British lawmaker with a team of European Commission election monitors said thousands of names of voters were missing or deleted from voting lists. Struan Stevenson, a British Conservative member of the European Parliament, said other problems included voter intimidation, ballot rigging and falsified ballots.

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