Iraq stumbles toward vote recount

By Khalid al-Ansary

BAGHDAD (BestGrowthStock) – An election recount in Baghdad will start on Monday and may take three weeks, Iraqi officials said on Thursday, further delaying the formation of a new government as U.S. troops prepare to leave.

Sectarian tensions are rising almost two months after the March 7 vote as Shi’ite-led factions including the incumbent prime minister’s bloc seek to overturn the slim, two-seat lead of a cross-sectarian alliance heavily backed by minority Sunnis.

The precarious security situation was highlighted by a car bomb blast in southwest Baghdad that killed eight people and wounded 20. Five were killed on Wednesday when suicide bombers attacked police checkpoints in the south of the capital and dozens died last Friday in a series of blasts in Shi’ite areas.

The recount in the capital has delayed certification of the election results and led to a prolonged period of political uncertainty, raising concerns among U.S. officials as the U.S. military prepares to stop combat operations in August.

A major change in the results would anger Sunnis, who once dominated Iraq, and could stoke violence as Iraq tries to end years of bloodshed unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

Electoral commissioner Hamdiya al-Husseini said the manual recount of 2.5 million ballots in Baghdad, which accounts for over a fifth of seats in the 325-seat parliament, would also include votes cast abroad and by troops, police, detainees and the sick.

“Monday … has been set as a date to start the recounting process. We estimated it would take from two to three weeks for the recount but this could change,” she said on Thursday.

Observers from the United Nations and the European Union are willing to advise Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission during the recount process, IHEC chief Faraj al-Haidari said.

FRAUD ALLEGATIONS

A review panel ordered the recount earlier this month after Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s bloc filed a case with it, alleging fraud.

Shi’ite groups are also seeking to have the panel wipe out the votes given to candidates with alleged ties to Saddam’s outlawed Baath party, most of whom are from former prime minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya list.

Maliki’s State of Law won 89 seats, according to preliminary results, while Iraqiya came first with 91 seats.

Allawi, a secular Shi’ite seen by Sunni backers as a likely defender of their political rights, has decried the attempts to overturn Iraqiya’s lead and called on the international community to consider holding a new election.

Many Iraqis were hoping that last month’s vote would help improve security and stabilize their war-damaged country after years of insurgent attacks and sectarian bloodshed.

But by producing no outright winner, the election left the country adrift in a political vacuum as Shi’ite-led, Sunni-backed and Kurdish political blocs try to negotiate coalitions to would allow them to form a majority government.

Iraqi politicians said alliance talks are now on hold until the vote recount is finalized.

U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill has urged politicians to get a move on with forming a government.

The U.S. military says its plans to stop combat operations in August, ahead of a full withdrawal by end-2011, do not depend on there being a government by then.

But a sharp deterioration in security could put President Barack Obama’s administration under pressure to change the timetable.

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(Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Charles Dick)

Iraq stumbles toward vote recount