Iraqi election race is heading for dead heat

Nouri al Maliki was ahead by just 40,000 votes from his main rival Ayad Allawi with 83 per cent of ballots counted.

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BAGHDAD // As vote counting in Iraq inches towards its conclusion, the prime minister Nouri al Maliki and his main rival Ayad Allawi are all but tied. Earlier tallies had given Mr al Maliki's state of law coalition a lead. With 80 per cent of votes counted by midday yesterday that had reversed by the narrowest of margins, Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya list taking a national lead of just 9,000 votes. But by the end of the day, with 83 per cent of votes counted, Mr Maliki had edged in front again with a 40,000 advantage.

In third place was the Iraq National Alliance (INA), a Shiite bloc once dominated by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). That dominance has now been eclipsed by a resurgent Sadrist movement, the anti-American Shiite group now firmly on course to become a main players in the coming parliament. With the state of law alliance losing its grip on first place, supporters of Mr al Maliki issued their first allegations of fraud.

Up until now it had been their rivals, including Iraqiyya, questioning the legitimacy of the election. Mr al Maliki himself had previously dismissed accusations of impropriety, saying any irregularities would not have a significant effect on the outcome, an opinion largely shared by international election observers. Ali al Adeeb, a close ally of Mr al Maliki, said the state of law coalition had been informed of unauthorised changes being made to results in Baghdad and other provinces.

"The state of law list will present an official request to the Independent High Electoral Commission for a recount of results," he said yesterday. "We have been given information from officials inside the commission that results have been changed and we are not satisfied about that. At the moment we are not accusing anyone but I will say the changes benefited a single party." Mr al Adeeb declined to name who would have gained from the alleged fraud.

According to the latest provisional tallies, the state of law alliance and Iraqiyya look set to take between 88 to 90 seats each in the 325-seat parliament. The INA appears on track to take 67 seats, more than half of which could end up in the Sadrists' hands, leaving ISCI, which always saw itself as the senior partner in the coalition, with some 16 seats. The two major Kurdish parties, which have taken on the role of kingmaker in Iraqi national politics since 2003, were on course to take 38 seats, which would ensure their influence remains strong.

Given the tightness of the race and the polarised nature of the national vote, it is now inevitable the next government will be a coalition of at least two of the major parliamentary forces. Exactly what form that coalition takes remains to be seen - negotiations in 2005 took five months to conclude - but it could feature parties breaking away from the alliances they formed in order to contest in the election.

Almost any combination is possible and, with no single list dominant, either Mr al Maliki or Mr Allawi could emerge as the next prime minister. The top job could also end up in the hands of compromise candidates, depending on what political deals are done to secure a winning 163-seat coalition. Talks are already underway between the various elements. According to Mahar al Douri, a prospective MP from the Sadrist movement, the group's leader, the cleric Muqtada al Sadr, expects to play a major role in the running of Iraq.

"It is clear that we have done well and we shall have a strong platform in parliament," she said. "Our role will reflect that." Mrs al Douri said it was too early to say with certainty if the Sadrists would join a coalition government again, but she indicated it was "possible" the Sadrists would ally with Mr al Maliki and the Kurdistani list, to form a government. While the Sadr movement and Mr al Maliki have not seen eye to eye - many Sadrists still resent Iraq's prime minister for his military campaign that smashed their Mahdi Army militia - there is also little love lost between the Sadrists and Mr Allawi.

During his brief stint as prime minister in 2004-2005, Mr Allawi led a military campaign against the Mahdi Army. It has been suggested that vote counting would be provisionally finished today but that timetable may have slipped. Final results, pending appeals and investigations of fraud, will have to be confirmed by the Iraqi courts. That process is expected to be complete by the end of the month.

What has become clear is that the March 7 election has not seen an end to Iraq's sectarian political discourse. Mr al Maliki, who campaigned in part on an anti-Baathist ticket that alienated Sunnis, has picked up no real support in Sunni majority areas, with votes largely going to the secular nationalist bloc of Mr Allawi. In the Shiite dominated south of Iraq, the opposite is true. That division has done little to quell fears about a possible upsurge in violence and likely political instability.

Whichever of the two main groups forms the basis of the next government, either Mr al Maliki's alliance or Mr Allawi's, the other side's supporters are likely to feel disenfranchised. Such disenfranchisement has fuelled an ongoing insurgency.