BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition Monday tried to throw another wrench into the slow-moving Iraq election process by calling for an audit in addition to a manual recount of votes from the March 7 parliamentary elections.
Just hours into the start of a recount expected to take up to two weeks, officials from Maliki's State of Law coalition moved to force the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) to examine the voter records and check voters' signatures against their ballots in addition to re-checking more than 2 million votes. The IHEC quickly rejected Maliki's newest complaint.
The recount has been widely seen as an attempt by Maliki to delay certification of election results that gave his slate two fewer parliamentary seats than leading coalition Iraqiya and weakened his chances of heading a coalition government. Both the United States and the United Nations said the voting process had been credible.
"U.S., the U.N. and many other organizations which sent observers to the elections...all attested to an election that was free of widespread systemic fraud," Gary Grappo, former ambassador to Oman and current political counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, told reporters Sunday. "We still believe in that, therefore we would not expect there to be a significant change with respect to this recount."
Votes across the country were split between four major political blocs, which must now decide how to form a coalition of at least 163 seats in the 325-seat parliament.
Election officials and hundreds of election workers were watched over by international observers gathered in the government-owned Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad's Green Zone early Monday as ballot boxes were brought under tight security from warehouses to be inspected for signs of tampering. The ballots were dumped on tables in a ballroom and the counting began.
Each of the ballots - more than 20 percent of the national total - is to be recounted after an appeals panel ordered the move following Maliki's complaint that alleged fraud in the ballot entry process deprived his party of hundreds of thousands of votes. The IHEC dismissed his demand for recounts in four other provinces.
The U.N. special representative to Iraq, Ad Melkert, said he hoped final results could be declared as soon as possible but called for patience with the process.
NEXT DRAMA: DISQUALIFIED CANDIDATES
IHEC officials say the recount is unlikely to change the number of seats allotted to Maliki. But another major development in the election drama could have a substantive effect.
Political parties await a ruling - from the same appeals panel that ordered the recount - on whether the disqualification of several winning candidates will stand. Those candidates - many of them from the largely secular Iraqiya coalition, Maliki's main challenger - have been barred from office because of alleged ties to the Baath party.
The process of purging elected Baathist candidates - set in motion by a commission headed by Shiite politicians who themselves were running for parliament - has been widely criticized by the U.S. and other international observers.
"We do remain concerned about this organization of questionable legitimacy of employing something of less than transparent means to challenge the results of a legitimate election," said Grappo. "We have communicated that message to Iraqi authorities - many of them share our concerns."