An Iraqi court on Monday ordered a recount of more than 2.5 million votes cast in Baghdad during the March 7 parliamentary election, a decision that could tilt the results in favor of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and inflame sectarian tensions after what has already been a contentious election.
Al-Maliki's bloc won 89 of parliament's 325 seats, putting him just two seats behind former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Neither has been able to cobble together a majority coalition with the support of other parties yet. In the meantime, al-Maliki has been trying to alter the outcome through court appeals and other challenges, and by trying to woo support away from Allawi.
Al-Maliki's State of Law bloc has claimed election fraud and demanded a recount in five provinces, including Baghdad, which accounts for almost a fifth of parliamentary seats.
The recount was ordered by a three-member court that investigates election-related complaints and will be carried out by Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, said commission official Hamdia al-Hussaini.
She said the election commission has so far only received the court's decision on Baghdad and has not received any decisions about the other provinces. She said the electoral commission would decide how and when the recount would be carried out.
The complete election results were released by the election commission on March 26 but were immediately challenged by al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, which claimed the vote was beset by fraud and irregularities.
The decision to recount the Baghdad ballots could significantly lengthen the time it takes to seat the next government, raising questions about the country's stability as political factions battle for supremacy.
Iraq's minority Sunni community, which saw its once dominant position under Saddam Hussein destroyed under the majority Shiite government that came into power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, was jubilant after Allawi's Iraqiya came up with a two-seat edge over State of Law.
Allawi, who like al-Maliki is Shiite, included Sunni candidates in his election list and attracted significant support from that community. Any perception that they have been robbed of their votes could have potentially violent repercussions in a country still reeling from years of sectarian violence.
During a news conference Monday, al-Maliki said the recount could alter the election results.
"We will all abide by the results of the recount. But I can say that it is possible for the results to be changed after the recounting," the prime minister said.
The United Nations, the Arab League and U.S. officials have all praised the election, saying it was fair and legitimate.
A spokeswoman for Iraqiya questioned the decision to hold a recount.
"We need to make sure that no one, neither the State of Law nor anyone else, will take seats they do not deserve. As long as the procedure will be handled in a transparent way, we will have no worries or concerns," said Maysoun Damlouji.
The order was handed down on the same day that powerful Shiite leader Ammar al-Hakim said he did not see either al-Maliki or Allawi as candidates who could succeed as prime minister because, in his view, they do not have enough support in Iraq or internationally.
Al-Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council is part of the Iraqi National Alliance, which came in third in the election with 70 seats. INA's support is key for any leader to form a government and his remarks only added to the political uncertainty over who will be able to build a ruling coalition.
"We are talking about a person who should be accepted on a national level," al-Hakim said in an interview Monday. "It's difficult for Mr. Maliki or even Mr. Ayad Allawi to gain the needed acceptance."
Al-Hakim was careful to say he would not reject either candidate. But his comments added to the sense that the coalition wrangling could drag on for months. That could leave a political vacuum and create space for militants to try to re-ignite violence as tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops prepare to leave Iraq by the end of August.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Lara Jakes, Bushra Juhi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.