Rival edges ahead of Iraq PM in overall vote count

Ex-PM Ayad Allawi's political alliance leading by 7,970 votes nationwide, according to a tally of 92% of the almost 12 million ballots cast.

Ayad Allawi 298.88 (photo credit: [file])
Ayad Allawi 298.88
(photo credit: [file])
BAGHDAD — A secular challenger to Iraq's prime minister edged ahead Saturday in the overall vote count in parliamentary elections, while the prime minister held onto his province-by-province lead as the counting neared completion.
The March 7 elections will determine who will lead Iraq as American troops depart and the country is left to grapple with the sectarian divisions laid bare by the US-led invasion seven years ago.
Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's political alliance was leading by 7,970 votes nationwide, according to a tally of 92 percent of the almost 12 million ballots cast. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition was leading in seven provinces compared with five for Allawi's bloc.
It was unclear whether Allawi's slim lead would hold or whether it would mean more parliament seats for his Iraqiya bloc. Under Iraq's election system, parliamentary seats are apportioned by how well coalitions do in each province, not by the overall vote count.
Allawi, who led the country from 2004 to 2005, has cast himself as the man who can bridge the country's sectarian divisions. His anti-Iran rhetoric has attracted a number of Sunni — and even Shi'ite — voters worried about the growing influence of their Shi'te-majority neighbor on Iraq's Shi'ite-led government.
Saturday's results mark the second time Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, made up of Sunni and Shi'ite candidates, has edged ahead of al-Maliki's State of Law coalition in the lengthy tallying of votes.
The results also included a fourth of the ballots cast by Iraqis living abroad, who are believed to back Allawi. Full preliminary results could come within days but final results could take weeks, pending appeals by political groups.
The counting process has been dogged by allegations of fraud from both the Iraqiya list and al-Maliki's State of Law coalition.
"We have talked about these violations from the start and will continue talking about them — such violations as voters' names not being registered, stamped ballots found dumped on the streets," said Maysoun al-Damlouji, a spokeswoman for the Iraqiya bloc. "By God's will, we will be the winners."
Al-Maliki's State of Law alliance earlier this week accused the electoral commission's counting center of doctoring the numbers and demanded a re-count.
Commission's spokesman, Qassim al-Aboudi, said Saturday that votes from 63 polling stations had been annulled over irregularities. He said almost 2,000 complaints had been filed and that the commission has looked into more than half.
Allawi, a secular Shiite, has drawn on significant Sunni support in areas such as Diyala and Ninevah provinces to boost his election chances, while al-Maliki's coalition has fared well in the Shiite south and Baghdad, which accounts for almost a fifth of the seats in parliament.
The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of Shiite religious parties tied to Iran, is leading in three provinces in the southern Shiite heartland. The Kurdish Alliance, as expected, was ahead in the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region in the country's north.
With no single coalition expected to win an outright majority inparliament, the very tight vote heralds extended political negotiationsto form a new government. Under Iraqi law, once the parliament isseated and elects a new president, he asks the bloc in parliament withthe most seats to form a government.
There are concerns protracted negotiations over the makeup of thegovernment could mean more turmoil for the country at a time when UStroops are scheduled to draw down to 50,000 by the end of August, underthe Obama administration's plan to remove all combat troops by then.
The March 7 vote was Iraq's second for a full-term parliament since the2003 US invasion ousted Saddam Hussein. Iraqis, embroiled in thepolitics and hardship of their daily lives, paid little attentionFriday to the war's seventh anniversary.