Reporting from Baghdad —
An Iraqi judicial panel on Monday ordered a manual recount of about 2.5 million ballots cast in Baghdad in last month's national elections, an action requested by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's alliance, which had filed allegations of vote fraud.
The legal decision raised Maliki's hopes that his Shiite-dominated coalition would be awarded more parliamentary seats than his rival Iyad Allawi's secular bloc, which had stunned the nation by winning a slim plurality in the March 7 vote. But it also raised fears that if the results are overturned, Iraq's minority Sunni Arab population, which had turned out in large numbers to cast ballots for former Prime Minister Allawi's alliance, would view the elections as stolen and launch a new armed revolt.
On Monday, Maliki, whose State of Law coalition had won fewer parliament seats than expected, described the recount as a way to assure voters the results were legitimate.
"This is a victory for the blocs who made the complaints and a victory for the rights of Iraqi people who were complaining about their votes," Maliki said at a news conference.
U.S. and other foreign observers had said that the election appeared to have been run fairly, but Maliki supporters accused the CIA and State Department of working to help Allawi.
The appeals court ruled in favor of a recount in Baghdad, but not in any other provinces, according to electoral commissioner Hamdiya Husseini.
The decision is likely to delay certification of election results and force a postponement in the seating of parliament, which had been anticipated in early June. And if Allawi's Iraqiya alliance loses its plurality, it is likely to result in bitter feelings among Sunnis, who had launched a bloody insurgency after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated authoritarian regime in 2003.
On Monday, Iraqiya leaders complained angrily about what they saw as political parties interfering with the judicial process.
"We in the Iraqiya bloc have great fears that the judicial committee was exposed to pressure from the prominent political leaders that influenced their final decision to conduct a manual recount," said Usama Nujaifi, a top vote-getter in Nineveh province. "We are now very vigilant and have doubts in our minds about this whole recount process.... I believe such news paves the way for political entities to tamper with the original results and change them as they wish; therefore, the decision of the judicial committee was definitely politicized."
For Maliki, the court decision was a big victory. His supporters were convinced that fraud had occurred when the results showed their State of Law bloc had won 89 parliament seats compared with Iraqiya's 91. Members of Maliki's list called a news conference a week ago where they detailed their fraud allegations, which they said included the forging of signatures on official records and the disappearance of votes from polling centers in the final tallies.
Of Baghdad's 70 parliament seats, Maliki's coalition won 26, compared with 24 for Iraqiya and 20 for other political slates. The recount could easily result in Maliki's slate overtaking Allawi's as the biggest bloc in parliament. That would be a huge advantage as Maliki negotiates with other factions in his effort to form a governing coalition and retain the prime minister's post. In an interview with The Times on Saturday, Maliki described the recount as a way to soothe feelings after a contentious election.
"We should not fear this process because it's within the scope of democracy, and this happens in developed countries like America," he said, noting the disputed 2000 presidential election results in the U.S. "So how about a newly established democracy like Iraq?
"What really concerns me most is not the changing of the results," he added. "I care that the Iraqi voters believe in the results and accept them, because if this issue is not resolved by legal means, then it will remain as a hemorrhaging wound."