BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq's electoral commission on Sunday rejected demands from Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and President Jalal Talabani for a manual recount of ballots, saying there was no justification for further delaying results of the March 7 parliamentary polls.
"We'd have to hire more than 350,000 employees and if we didn't hire that many, we'd need three years to recount (by hand)," said Faraj al Haidari, chairman of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, the parliament-appointed panel supervising the election. He added that no one had presented evidence of widespread fraud to merit such a drastic measure.
With 95 percent of votes counted, Maliki's State of Law coalition is neck and neck with the Iraqiya bloc led by the secular former prime minister, Ayad Allawi. As of this weekend, Maliki held a slight lead in the number of legislative seats won per province — the factor that determines the winner — but Allawi was a few thousand ballots ahead in the popular vote, according to the commission's figures. Final results will be announced Friday, election commissioners said.
Maliki, a conservative Shiite Muslim, demanded a recount in an ominously worded statement that said such a move would "preserve political stability" and prevent "the return of violence." Talabani, a Kurd, followed with a statement that also called for another tally, "to preclude any doubts or confusion." The two politicians stressed that they were making the demands as Iraq's top leaders, not as candidates.
It was an odd reversal of positions in an election whose results have been pending for two weeks. Only a week ago, it was Allawi's camp that was claiming fraud.
"Maliki believes in democracy as long as long as it brings him to power," said Maysoun al Damlouji, an Allawi running mate and spokeswoman.
Hassan al Sneid, a Maliki-allied legislator and associate of the prime minister, released a written warning that the State of Law coalition "rejects results that do not come from a manual recount."
About 300 Maliki supporters took to the streets in the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf in a demonstration that could foreshadow more unrest in Iraq's increasingly tense post-election period.
U.S. and Iraqi officials had hoped for a smooth election season to set the ground for the withdrawal of American forces by the end of next year.
"The situation may well deteriorate into a state not unlike what happened in Iran," said Haider al Musawi, a political analyst at an independent research center in Baghdad, referring to the months of riots, protests and mass arrests that followed the disputed June election in neighboring Iran.
"This would be catastrophic for the political process. Iraqis have started to believe that their votes could make a difference," Musawi said. "If they see their votes turned around, God only knows where that would lead us - maybe to violence once again."
The ballot-counting process has been fraught with allegations from all sides of fraud and manipulation, while the commission itself has struggled to handle huge amounts of data and fight off attempts at political interference. The United Nations, along with Iraqi and international monitors, found no evidence so far of widespread fraud of the sort that would discredit the entire election.
Haidari, the election commission chairman, said the allegations of fraud only began in earnest when partial results were announced and some parties realized they didn't fare as well as they'd expected.
With an outright majority implausible for either man's bloc, both Allawi and Maliki have accused rivals of manipulating the vote, perhaps to save face over the lack of a mandate, or to wind up their supporters for street protests in case of defeat.
In Najaf, home to a sacred Shiite shrine, small groups of protesters carried pro-Maliki signs and chanted, "Yes to Maliki! No to the return of Baathism," a reference to the ideology of Iraq's late dictator Saddam Hussein.
The words were a jab at Allawi, a secular Shiite whose running mates included Sunnis and Shiites who were smeared as Baathists just before the election. The strong showing of Allawi's mixed-sect, secular bloc was a shock to his opponents, chief among them Iranian-backed religious Shiite figures who spent years in the exiled opposition to Saddam.
In the last parliamentary election, in 2005, Maliki and allies formed a Shiite slate that steamrolled opponents with a campaign based on sectarianism and religious duty. Secular candidates barely registered.
"They took their victory for granted and now they're shocked that the Iraqiya coalition has reaped more votes," said Musawi, the analyst. "What they fail to understand is that the way people voted was a reaction to their performance over the past four years. Many Iraqis feel that the government failed in its most basic duties and is riddled with corruption and self-interest."
(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Sahar Issa in Baghdad and Qassim Zein in Najaf contributed to this report.)
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