- The Washington Times - Monday, May 3, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi election officials argued publicly with supporters of the prime minister who demanded a halt to a partial recount of votes just as the process got under way Monday, a sign of tensions over the measure that could change the outcome of the closely fought contest.

The recount of 2.5 million votes cast March 7 in the capital Baghdad was ordered at the request of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who narrowly lost to former Prime Minister iyad Allawi with heavy Sunni support. It has further delayed the formation of a government, which some fear will lead to an increase in violence in Iraq just as U.S. troops prepare to go home.

Mr. al-Maliki demanded recounts in five provinces and got one in Baghdad, which started Monday morning and is expected to take up to three weeks. But about an hour after it began, representatives of the prime minister’s State of Law coalition arrived at the Rasheed Hotel in the walled-off Green Zone where the recount was in progress and demanded publicly at a press conference that it be halted.

The coalition complained the commission wasn’t conducting the recount properly by not reopening voter records and checking voter signatures against ballots. State of Law official and Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani also charged that election commission officials had manipulated the votes and demanded they be held accountable.

Election officials dismissed the charge, and the recount continued uninterrupted after the argument.

Election commission chief Faraj al-Haidari and al-Shahristani raised their voices and wagged fingers at each other as journalists crowded around.

State TV cut their live transmission of the event but the spat continued off-camera just a few yards from where the recount was going, with bodyguards trying to keep journalists away from the officials.

At one point, Mr. al-Shahristani told the election commission official if the demands of Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition were not met, there would be a crisis and the commission would be to blame. Khalid al-Assadi, a spokesman for Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition, later clarified that Mr. al-Shahristani meant there would be even more legal challenges to the courts and the process would drag out even longer.

The election commission “does not bow to any pressure and it will not be affected by any pressure,” Mr. al-Haidari said at his own press conference later.

Another election commission official, Sardar Abdul Karim, said State of Law had presented a complaint to a court overseeing election disputes and that if the court ruled in their favor, the votes counted Monday would have to be recounted — essentially a recount of the recount.

No party won a clear parliamentary majority in the election, and more than a month of haggling among political factions has not produced any clear indication of how a ruling coalition might look.

Mr. al-Maliki has vociferously challenged the results which gave him 89 of 325 seats in parliament, trailing close behind Mr. Allawi’s bloc with 91 seats.

If the recount alters the results, it could infuriate Iraq’s once-dominant Sunni Arab minority, which is already wary of Mr. al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government and what they see as efforts to steal the election.

An Iraqiya spokesman, Abdul-Rahman al-Budeir, said State of Law’s demands will only succeed in delaying formation of the new government.

“We are not worried if the recount is conducted in an honest and professional way,” he said, adding that he did not think the results would change.

At the hotel, elections officials hauled ballot boxes onto tables in a large hall and instructed counters on how to proceed.

Hundreds of election workers crowded into the hall and wiped the dust off the ballot boxes, which have been kept for weeks in storage. They inspected the containers for any signs of tampering.

As U.N. monitors, election officials and political party observers watched, the recount began.

The United Nations and the U.S. have declared the election free of systematic fraud.

Even if the recount does not swing the results in his direction, Mr. al-Maliki, in office since 2006, may still benefit from the actions of a Shi’ite-led commission responsible for vetting candidates for links to Saddam Hussein’s former regime. The commission has recommended disqualifying several of Allawi’s candidates.

Mr. al-Abboudi said they are still waiting for a court decision on whether to exclude as many as nine candidates who won seats but are accused of having ties to Saddam’s outlawed Ba’ath Party.

A court has already dismissed 52 candidates, including one winner, in a Shi’ite-led postelection purge that Sunnis believe specifically targeted their supporters. Candidates can appeal their ban.

“If these winners are excluded, then this will affect the results of the election,” Mr. al-Abboudi said.

Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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