- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2010

BAGHDAD | Iraqi election results Friday likely will show a virtual tie between the two top vote-getting blocs led by the prime minister and his chief rival, a political equation that could add up to bitter political wrangling and risk reigniting violence.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has wide support with the Shi’ite majority, is neck and neck with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who is popular among Iraq’s Sunni minority.

If neither camp emerges with a clear mandate to lead Iraq’s fragile democracy, many fear, a drawn-out political debate to form a government could spill over into violence and complicate U.S. efforts to speed up troop withdrawals in the coming months.

The country’s interior minister, also a candidate, called Thursday on Iraq’s electoral commission to hold off releasing the tally Friday because he fears rivalries among the various political blocs could erupt into violence. That concern has been echoed by many members of Mr. al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, who say they fear the country’s Shi’ite majority could react in outrage if they feel the results aren’t what they expect.

Such pronouncements likely reflect a great deal of political posturing. Election officials have firmly dismissed calls for a delay or a recount in a vote-tallying process that has dragged on for nearly three weeks since Iraqis went to the polls March 7.

Even so, many here fear a return to violence between the country’s Sunni and Shi’ite factions amid the horse-trading that will ramp up in earnest once all results are released.

Iraq’s Kurdish faction has long seen itself as a key electoral kingmaker, though followers of radical anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also could play a pivotal role after garnering a significant number of seats.

Friday’s announcement will have the full results - and, more importantly, the number of parliamentary seats per bloc.

“The difference between the leader and the second place will be one to two seats,” Independent High Electoral Commission chief Faraj al-Haidari said, although he would not say who was ahead.

In the overall tally, with 95 percent of the votes counted, Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition narrowly trails Mr. Allawi’s bloc. But Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition is ahead in seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces, compared with Mr. Allawi’s five. The allocation of parliament’s seats is based on votes counted per province.

The results become final after they are ratified by the Supreme Court.

Whoever succeeds in forming a government - a process that could take months - will be able to reward allies with control of government ministries and the jobs that go with them. He also will preside over a pivotal moment in Iraq’s postwar history: the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

About 95,000 American troops remain, but that number is expected to drop to 50,000 by the end of August under President Obama’s plan to remove all combat troops from Iraq. All American troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011.

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