BAGHDAD — Allegations of electoral fraud in the long-disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk have delayed the release of final results from Iraq’s national elections, but that has not stopped the most powerful political blocs from holding talks about forming a new government.
In the vote last Saturday, a ticket backed by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won the most votes, with about 90 percent of the ballots counted. How those votes translate into the number of seats in parliament will depend on a complete count, which has been held up by accusations that a Kurdish party in the mixed Arab and Kurdish city of Kirkuk manipulated the process.
The United Nations on Thursday urged Iraq’s electoral commission to investigate the allegations and conduct a manual recount of the electronic ballots to “strengthen the confidence in the process.”
“The UN is ready to provide assistance, if requested,” Jan Kubis, the U.N. secretary general representative in Iraq, said in a statement.
On Wednesday, the head of Iraq’s electoral commission said election workers were being held hostage by gunmen at an election center and have been unable to send results from 186 ballot boxes.
His comments were condemned by Kirkuk’s governor, who said that there was no armed standoff and that protesters had simply gathered around the polling center to express their opposition to the results.
A senior military officer involved in securing the election in Kirkuk said in an interview that the protest is peaceful and unarmed.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan won the most votes in Kirkuk, according to a partial count. Many voters there have disputed the result, arguing that the city’s Arab and Turkmen population exceeds the Kurdish population, thus making the count implausible.
Kirkuk has for decades been at the heart of a quarrel between Iraq’s central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in the north, which claims the city as part of its territory.
Tensions boiled over after a Kurdish vote for independence last year, provoking a military response from Baghdad that asserted control over the city and its oil fields.
Iraq’s use of an electronic voting system for the first time has led to instances throughout the country of confusion and voters being turned away for lacking updated voting cards. But there have been no widespread reports of fraud.
Still, many candidates and politicians have criticized the election commission for its overall handling of the voting and counting, and the parliament is planning to hold an emergency session Saturday to discuss the issues.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is coming in third nationwide so far, slightly behind a ticket led by Hadi al-Ameri, a staunchly pro-Iran commander of a large Shiite political and armed organization called Badr. Abadi and Ameri could swap places once the final count is done, separated by a single seat, according to preliminary calculations by election experts.
Sadr, the undisputed first-place finisher, opposes Iran and the United States, and ran a campaign based on cross-sectarian populism and calls for reform.
Although the results are not final, it’s clear that no one will win anything close to a majority in the 329-seat legislature. This has set off an international scramble to influence the coalition-building process that will lead to the selection of a prime minister by the parliament.
An official close to the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations, said Iran and the United States have their top Iraq envoys in Baghdad, Gen. Qasem Soleimani and Brett McGurk, trying to put their stamp on the process.
Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard , has been holding talks to bring the largest Shiite blocs together in an effort to dilute Sadr’s power, the official said . That would involve an unlikely alliance between Abadi, Ameri, former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ammar al-Hakim, a Shiite cleric whose ticket is projected to win a handful of seats.
Hassan Salim, a lawmaker who ran on the Ameri ticket, said that there is a “good understanding” between those figures and that they are waiting for final results to be announced to proceed.
Muhammad Shummary, an adviser to Hakim, said Iran would like to see that Shiite bloc, but he cast doubt on whether it would emerge as the new majority. He said Hakim is closer to Abadi and Sadr in politics and in temperament. The United States and Saudi Arabia would prefer a coalition including Sadr and Abadi that could ensure Abadi a second term as prime minister.