BAGHDAD — Iraq's embattled election commission announced Tuesday that 79 percent of the votes from parliamentary elections have been counted, a breakthrough for a process so slow that it's raised suspicions of fraud. The close race got even closer as a secular rival edged nearer to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition.
The longer the process drags on, the more anxious and speculative Iraq's rival parties become as they await the results of the March 7 vote, the second general election since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Election Day was hailed as a success as millions of Iraqis defied attacks and intimidation to head to polling stations. The chaotic ballot-counting process, however — coupled with the emergence of challengers to traditional Shiite Muslim and Kurdish parties — has sapped voter confidence amid allegations of ineptitude, fraud and manipulation.
Although nearly every major political bloc has made such claims, the United Nations, Iraqi monitoring groups and Western diplomats have said there's no evidence of widespread or "systemic" fraud that would discredit the entire vote or any one ticket.
Nevertheless, al-Maliki's State of Law coalition made fresh allegations Tuesday, accusing the counting center of doctoring numbers and demanding a recount, according to a letter signed by al-Maliki.
The letter charges that the political allegiance of the counting center's supervisors undermines "their neutrality in administering such a momentous and crucial process," according to the AP.
The Independent High Electoral Commission, the body that's overseeing the election, so far has released only partial results, which point to a narrow lead for al-Maliki's coalition — seven out of Iraq's 18 provinces.
The secular, mixed-sect slate anchored by former premier Ayad Allawi was close behind, leading in five provinces, and it edged past al-Maliki's coalition as the top vote-getter nationwide.