Reporting from Baghdad — Iraq's political process lurched toward crisis Sunday as the country's prime minister, president and interior minister threw their weight behind a ballot-by-ballot recount of the nation's parliamentary elections.
In addition, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose election slate is locked in a tight race with that of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, invoked his military powers as Iraq's commander in chief to insist that the Independent High Electoral Commission respond to the recount demand issued by his political bloc and others. He warned that a failure to do so risked a return to the bloodshed that ripped the country asunder four years ago.
The prime minister insisted the credibility of the election was in danger, after his election bloc filed a fraud complaint last week and called for retallying all the votes. The Iraqi election commission defended its work in a news conference Sunday night and said it did not intend a ballot-by-ballot recount. It expects final results Friday.
The commission also hit back at critics. "To come now and make allegations against the IHEC, I don't think this serves the interests of that person, or the elections process, or even political progress in its entirety," said Faraj Haidari, the head of the commission.
Suspicions and doubts about the validity of the vote pose a serious challenge to the United States' plan to withdraw all but 50,000 troops from Iraq by the end of August. The recount demand comes despite statements from the U.S. Embassy and the United Nations that the balloting had been carried out in a credible fashion
Kenneth Katzman, an analyst on Iraq for the Congressional Research Service, warned Sunday that Maliki could be building the foundations for a non-democratic regime. "Especially with this language of defending the constitution, setting themselves up as the protectors of the constitution, that is how authoritarian parties usually justify what they do," Katzman said. "It's ominous."
Maliki, in his statement released Sunday, said a response from the electoral commission to demands for a recount was necessary "[in order] to safeguard the political stability and to prevent the slipping of the security situation in the country and the resurgence of violence that was defeated only after efforts, sufferings and bloodshed."
Later, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh, a member of Maliki's electoral bloc, defended their accusations. "We are not asking for new elections," he said on state television, "but only a recount because there are worries about this process."
With 95% of the ballots counted, the race between Maliki and Allawi to lead the biggest bloc in parliament remained too close to call. The vote has generated sectarian tensions, with Maliki presenting himself as the Shiite Muslim candidate in the hopes of defeating Allawi, a secular Shiite whose coalition includes many Sunni Arabs from Saddam Hussein's toppled regime. The two politicians have swapped the lead several times as election results continue to be counted. On Sunday night, Allawi appeared to be ahead by 11,000 votes nationwide.
Maliki, who has angered many Iraqi political leaders through his accumulation of power in the last four years, could very well be edged out by Allawi even if his slate wins the popular vote. Allawi, who was similarly accused of authoritarian tendencies while in office in 2004, could outmaneuver Maliki to form the next government.
That prospect has angered Maliki's political circle, which believes the country's Shiite majority would reject an Allawi government.
The demands for a recount were backed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The president's Kurdistan Alliance has battled Allawi's slate for seats in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which the Kurds hope to annex to the semiautonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Allawi's list has also trumped the Kurds in Nineveh and Diyala provinces, where the Kurds also have ambitions to annex territories they lost during Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime toppled in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Interior Minister Jawad Bolani, who is with the cross-sectarian Iraqi Unity Alliance, fared poorly in election results thus far released. He accused unidentified politicians of inflating voter registration numbers by as much as 12%.
"There was the possibility of treating this [situation] before we reached this stage. People want no more than their rights," Bolani said in an interview. A senior member of Allawi's Iraqiya slate, who asked not to be identified, accused rivals of trying to steal the election through a recount. He worried that Maliki might try to declare a state of emergency, or that violence could erupt. "Everything is possible now," he said.
The U.S. military has been watching ballot storage centers in case Maliki seeks to use his security forces to impose a recount, a senior U.S. officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.