Iraq recounts votes
Baghdad - Iraq began a manual recount on Monday of millions of votes cast in a parliamentary election held nearly two months ago, a tally that has delayed a final result and stalled negotiations to form a new government.
The March 7 election produced no clear winner, heightening sectarian tensions as the divided country tries to cement fragile improvements in security and Washington prepares to end combat operations formally at the end of August.
The recount of 2.5 million ballots cast in Baghdad could take 11 or 12 days, an electoral commission official said.
It could reverse the lead of a cross-sectarian alliance headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi which rode strong support from the Sunni minority to take 91 seats in the 325-member parliament.
Incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc had 89, according to preliminary results released weeks ago.
Both fell well short of the 163 seats needed to form a government alone, forcing coalitions to enter difficult negotiations to cobble together a parliamentary majority.
A review panel ordered the manual recount after a complaint from Maliki's bloc alleging fraud in the initial tally of ballots in Baghdad, which holds more than a fifth of the seats in parliament.
The Independent High Electoral Commission (Ihec) would recount ballots cast at 11 000 polling stations in the capital at a rate of 800 to 1 000 stations a day, election commissioner Qasim al-Aboudi said.
The recount drew an immediate complaint from Maliki's bloc, which said the elections commission was not properly comparing ballots with voter lists.
"We do not believe what is going on today is accurate work," said Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani, a member of Maliki's coalition who was appointed by the prime minister to oversee the recount for his bloc.
"Ihec is insisting on not letting the results reflect the Iraqi voters' will," he told a news conference.
A major change in the results could anger the Sunni minority, which once dominated Iraq and voted in force for the coalition led by Allawi, a secular Shi'ite.
Allawi has said any attempt to marginalise his bloc could lead to more bloodshed. Violence has dropped sharply following the sectarian slaughter of 2006-07, but bombings and assassinations remain a daily occurrence.
Iraqis had hoped the March 7 vote would lead to a more stable government as the country tries to end years of bloodshed unleashed after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.