BAGHDAD: The battle to form an Iraqi government was thrown wide open on Monday after it was ordered that ballots cast in Baghdad be manually recounted, in a surprise move that could affect who leads the country.
The judicial panel decision came after an appeal by incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who, according to unofficial results, narrowly lost the March 7 vote to his rival and former premier Iyad Allawi.
Baghdad, with a total of 70 seats, was by far the biggest prize for parties competing in the second national election since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.
The poll will eventually lead to a new parliament comprising 325 MPs. Although Maliki, a Shiite, came out ahead in the capital -- winning 26 seats to Allawi's 24 -- he alleged there had been manipulation in voting stations and that he had lost a total of 750,000 votes in five provinces, including Baghdad.
The recount could lead to a wider winning margin for the premier in the capital, allowing him to eventually overturn his 89-91 defeat nationally to Allawi's secular Iraqiya coalition.
"The judicial panel decided to recount the votes in Baghdad," said Hamdiyah al-Husseini of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) whose colleague, Iyad al-Kenani, confirmed it would be a manual recount.
The recount will take "not longer than 10 days," Kenani said, and officials from all political parties will be allowed to observe it. Under the Iraqi constitution, the Iraqiya bloc, as the election's victors, was entitled to the first crack at forming a government but Allawi has so far failed to do so. Were Maliki, who has also struggled to win backing from other parties, including former allies in the Iraqi National Alliance -- the country's largest religious political grouping -- to gain seats, he could yet come out ahead.
A key Maliki ally said the recount was a direct result of the State of Law's appeal and that it expected to gain seats.
"The committee discussed all the documents and evidence that prove that there was some manipulation in voting stations," said Hassen al-Senaed, a State of Law parliamentarian.
"The appeal committee was convinced on the basis of the evidence. We expect an increase in our number of seats in Baghdad," he added.
The judicial panel that ordered the Baghdad recount was established by IHEC to handle complaints from aggrieved parties about the conduct of the election.
No one from Iraqiya, led by Shiite ex-premier Allawi but regarded as a secular coalition that won strong support in Sunni provinces, was immediately available for comment.
UN special representative to Iraq Ad Melkert last month described the polls as "credible" after the IHEC said there was no evidence of systematic or widespread fraud in the ballot count.
A total tally last month said Maliki won 903,360 votes in Baghdad, compared with Iraqiya's 841,755.
The National Alliance (INA), a strongly Shiite grouping, won 561,659 votes, according to the unofficial results. The recount is likely to add to the sense of political instability apparent in Iraq since last month's inconclusive election.
With neither Allawi nor Maliki gaining anywhere near the 163 seats necessary to form a government on their own, the weeks since have been dominated by talks with smaller parties, some with close ties to Iran, to build a coalition.
Among those whose support the pair, the main candidates for the prime minister's post, have been jostling for is that of the Sadrist movement of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr, who has been in self-imposed exile in Iran for the past three years, however, has issued several statements criticising Maliki.
There have also been two major bombings, one of which targeted foreign embassies, that have left dozens dead, since last month's election, underscoring Iraq's volatile security situation.
Maliki and the United States on Monday, however, announced the killings of Abu Omar al Baghdadi and Abu Ayub al Masri, al Qaeda's top two leaders in Iraq, who had links to Osama bin Laden, in a joint raid north of the capital.
The deaths are "potentially the most significant blow to al Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency," said General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in the country.