Prime minister warns of violence, but election board rejects call for recount

Hundreds of people in Najaf protest in support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's demand for a manual recount of election votes.
Hundreds of people in Najaf protest in support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's demand for a manual recount of election votes. (Alaa Al-marjani/Associated Press)
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By Leila Fadel and Jinan Hussein
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 22, 2010

BAGHDAD -- As new results from this month's election continued to show a neck-and-neck race, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday issued a strongly worded warning that without a nationwide recount, the country could descend into violence. The electoral commission quickly rejected the request, saying a recount would be neither necessary nor feasible.

Maliki's statement, in which he pointedly invoked his role as "Commander in Chief of the armed forces," alarmed some U.S. and Iraqi officials who worry Maliki is laying the groundwork to stay in office even if he does not win a plurality of the vote. Maliki's party has alleged the vote counting has been marred by fraud.

Maliki, a Shiite who is increasingly isolated politically, is in a tight contest with secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who draws his support largely from Sunnis. Allawi's strong performance threatens the control that Kurds and religious Shiite politicians hold on government power.

The United States is hoping for a peaceful transfer of authority as it draws down to 50,000 troops this summer from the current level of 96,000.

Maliki and his allies "think they're losing, and they have no intention of giving up their regime," said a U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. "These are people who were exiled and who've risen to power almost overnight because we brought them back to power. Now they're going to lose that relative lock on power through these elections. This is not sounding like the peaceful transfer of power is about to occur."

The U.S. military was watching electoral centers where ballots were being stored on Sunday, worried that Maliki might use the Iraqi military to lock down the buildings and "check the vote," the official said.

"It's a very dangerous statement made by a prime minister," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group. "If the country is going to unravel, this is the period when it would happen. This is the critical period of Iraq's modern history where they continue to build their institutions or return to a civil war more fractured than the one of the past."

Members of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission were visibly frustrated on Sunday as they rejected Maliki's recount demand, which was also made by Kurdish President Jalal Talabani. The commission had counted 95 percent of the votes by Sunday evening but was not expected to release the rest of the results until Friday. The final 5 percent of the vote could prove crucial, as neither Maliki nor Allawi has established a decisive lead.

Officials from the commission said that there was no proof of massive fraud and that a manual recount was not possible or reliable.

"We are surprised at all these statements," said Saad al-Rawi, one of the commissioners. "Those political blocs wanted the elections; why are they rejecting the results? If they have doubts, then they can just abolish IHEC and do what they want."

The center where the votes are tabulated has been a scene of chaos for the past two weeks, as officials visited with complaints and employees were dismissed for making mistakes. But U.S. and U.N. officials have said that there are no signs of widespread fraud and that the lengthy counting process results from the extensive checks and balances within the computer system.

Maliki's allies said that he was acting in the interest of the state to ensure the legitimacy of the elections and that he has the authority to rule until a recount is completed.

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