BAGHDAD — Iraq's embattled election commission announced Tuesday that 79 percent of the votes from parliamentary elections have been counted, a breakthrough for a process so slow that it's raised suspicions of fraud. The close race got even closer as a secular rival edged nearer to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's coalition.
The longer the process drags on, the more anxious and speculative Iraq's rival parties become as they await the results of the March 7 vote, the second general election since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Election Day was hailed as a success as millions of Iraqis defied attacks and intimidation to head to polling stations. The chaotic ballot-counting process, however — coupled with the emergence of challengers to traditional Shiite Muslim and Kurdish parties — has sapped voter confidence amid allegations of ineptitude, fraud and manipulation.
Although nearly every major political bloc has made such claims, the United Nations, Iraqi monitoring groups and Western diplomats have said there's no evidence of widespread or "systemic" fraud that would discredit the entire vote or any one ticket.
Nevertheless, Maliki's State of Law coalition made fresh allegations Tuesday, accusing the counting center of doctoring numbers and demanding a recount, according to a letter signed by Maliki and obtained by The Associated Press.
The letter charges that the political allegiance of the counting center's supervisors undermines "their neutrality in administering such a momentous and crucial process," according to the AP.
The Independent High Electoral Commission, the body that's overseeing the election, so far has released only partial results, which point to a narrow lead for Maliki's coalition — seven out of Iraq's 18 provinces.
The secular, mixed-sect slate anchored by former premier Ayad Allawi was close behind, leading in five provinces, and it edged past Maliki's coalition as the top vote getter nationwide, according to incomplete figures from the commission Tuesday.
However, the number of parliamentary seats that each slate wins in each province — not the nationwide popular vote — will determine which coalition has the largest say in forming the next government.
A Western diplomat, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment publicly, summed up the complex vote-counting process as "a Florida situation," an allusion to the confusion that accompanied the recount of the state's ballots in the 2000 presidential election.
The Shiite, Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance and the main Kurdish ticket each lead in three provinces, according to the partial results.
No coalition is expected to win a clear majority, which means that months of intense negotiations are likely before a new government is seated.
(McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq
Follow Middle East news at McClatchy's Middle East Diary
McClatchy Newspapers 2010