BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saw his political coalition's lead in Iraq's parliamentary elections slip Tuesday. He charged that the national electoral commission was manipulating results and demanded a recount in Baghdad, home to the nation's largest group of voters.
Maliki's State of Law bloc has seen its lead narrow with 79 percent of the ballots from the March 7 elections counted. Its fiercest competition has come from secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister who heads the Iraqiya bloc, favored by Sunni Arabs. News services reported that Allawi's coalition moved ahead in the popular vote count on Tuesday, though it remained behind in the more important province-by-province results, which determine how seats in parliament are apportioned.
The election commission has been hit by hundreds of fraud accusations, but Tuesday's action marked the first time the incumbent prime minister had weighed in. His coalition leads in seven of Iraq's 18 provinces, including Baghdad, which has the most seats in parliament, and Basra, a Shiite southern province rich in oil.
A narrow lead would make it harder for Maliki to garner allies he needs to form a coalition government. The political jockeying could go on for months, widen sectarian rifts and spark violence as U.S. troops draw down.
The delay in the announcement of final results and the chaotic release of information by the election commission have spurred numerous complaints of wrongdoing and incompetence, mostly from the prime minister's rivals. Now Maliki has lodged an objection as well.
"It seems there are some who want to minimize the difference between the number of votes received by the State of Law and another bloc," said Ali al-Adeeb, a leading candidate in Maliki's coalition. "If this matter is not taken care of, we will resort to announcing who is behind this manipulation."
Adeeb said that some of the data for Baghdad had been tampered with and that the bloc had demanded a recount.
A complaint letter to the commission signed by Maliki asserted that his coalition had "received reliable information that supervisors of the electronic counting center" were associated with competitors, the Associated Press reported. It asked that election results be delayed until complaints had been investigated.
Western diplomats and United Nations officials have dismissed the fraud accusations as "irregularities" and said they would not change the outcome of the elections. A U.S. official said the system was too complicated to rig.
The commission's counting center remained chaotic Tuesday, with journalists waiting for hours for results only to receive CDs of old information. The results that were available indicated that Maliki was in the lead in the overall race while Allawi remained ahead in the mostly Sunni provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahuddin.
In the ethnically mixed province of Tamim, Allawi's strong lead had dissipated, with the Kurdish alliance trailing him by only five votes, the AP reported.
The province contains the disputed city of Kirkuk, to which Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen lay claim.
The Iraqi National Alliance, the mostly religious Shiite coalition, remained in the lead in three southern provinces. The Kurdish alliance, as expected, leads in the three northern provinces that make up the autonomous Kurdish region.
By Leila Fadel
Special Correspondent K.I. Ibrahim and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.