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Nouri al Maliki takes early lead in Iraq election

Amid renewed claims of fraud and counting errors, with 30 per cent of ballots counted, prime minister was ahead in southern provinces.

BAGHDAD // The release of provisional results from Iraq's election was overshadowed yesterday by renewed claims from major political blocs of fraud and counting errors. Even as the United Nations and Iraqi electoral officials insisted the vote had been clean, leading contenders were maintaining the ballot had been marred by corruption.

Preliminary results from the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) suggested a tight contest between the State of Law coalition, led by prime minister Nouri al Maliki, and his main challenger, Iraqiyya, headed by the former prime minister Ayad Allawi. According to IHEC, with 30 per cent of ballots counted, Mr al Maliki was ahead in the southern provinces of Najaf and Babil. In second place was the Iraq National Alliance (INA), a sectarian Shiite coalition, while secular nationalist Iraqiyya were a distant third.

In Diyala and Salahaddin provinces, north of Baghdad, the positions were reversed, with Iraqiyya leading. These provisional results suggest Mr al Maliki, a Shiite who ran a campaign with sectarian undertones, performed well in Shiite-dominated areas, while Mr Allawi, who ran for election with Sunni Arab partners, has performed well in Sunni-majority areas. If that trend is borne out by the final results - to be confirmed at the end of the month - it does not bode well for hopes the election would usher in a period of national political reconciliation. Iraq was torn by a vicious Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict between 2006 and 2008 and, while the violence has subsided dramatically, the underlying political divisions between the various sectarian and ethnic factions appear to be largely unaltered.

"Allawi seems to be the choice for Sunnis and Shiites have gone for Maliki or the INA," said Abbas Aziz, an independent political analyst based in Kut. "There are good reasons for that, including that Allawi has stood against Iran and got support from the Arab states" Before the election the INA spearheaded an anti-Baath campaign that saw hundreds of would-be candidates barred from standing, including senior Sunni politician Salah al Mutlaq, a member of the Iraqiyya bloc. Mr al Maliki's State of Law coalition, which had vowed to take a nationalist, nonsectarian stance, capitalised on the affair.

Critics of Mr al Maliki say his government put pressure on the Iraqi judicial system to push through the election blacklist, after judges had initially questioned its legality. The move was seen by his opponents as a nakedly sectarian appeal to Iraq's Shiite majority. The de-Baathification controversy led to a bitter election campaign and, with parties still jockeying for position as counting continues, recriminations show little sign of abating.

At a press conference in Baghdad yesterday Iraqiyya alleged fraud had taken place. "We have recoded dozens of violations and there is interference from some officials," said Adnan al Janabi, of Iraqiyya. A similar complaint had been made a short time earlier by Ahmad al Chalabi, a senior INA figure and highly controversial character on Iraq's political landscape. He raised questions over the computerised ballot counting system and said there were concerns about a lack of transparency in how the results were being compiled.

The INA issued a statement warning it believed there were signs of "intentions to change the election results". It urged election authorities to publish polling stations data so that parties could check results against their own tallies. The criticisms by Iraqiyya and the INA came a day after Ad Melkert, the UN special representative to Iraq, called the count an "honest process". Provisional results were also released yesterday for Erbil province, the administrative centre for the Kurdish autonomous region. With 28 per cent of votes counted, the Kurdistani list was ahead of its main rival, the pro-reform Goran movement. The Kurdistani coalition includes the KDP and PUK, the two incumbent parties that have ruled in Kurdish northern Iraq for decades. The recent emergence of Goran, fighting its first national election, represents the first real challenge to the KDP/PUK and it is expected to win a number of seats in Iraq's national parliament.

It was also revealed yesterday Mr al Maliki, who will remain prime minister until a new government is appointed, underwent surgery on Wednesday. His office issued a statement saying he was in "good health" after an operation in Baghdad. No further details were given. While Mr al Maliki's coalition appears to be in a strong position as a result of Sunday's election, it does not automatically follow that he will lead the next government. With no party likely to win an outright majority, the government will be formed on the basis of a coalition and Mr al Maliki could very well find himself sidelined if other groups side together against him.

@Email:psands@thenational.ae nlatif@thenational.ae Phil Sands reported from Sulemaniya