Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi demanded that an internationally backed caretaker government be formed and new national elections be held, if an Iraqi court continues to bar parliamentary candidates from his slate from taking office.
The comments by Allawi, whose slate won more parliament seats than any other political list in the March elections, underscored a deepening conviction within his coalition that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated alliance is trying to erode his slate's lead by any means possible.
Analysts have raised fears that if the nation's minority Sunni Arab population, which largely backed Allawi, feels alienated, a new era of sectarian bloodshed could result.
"We will demand the formation of a temporary government, a caretaker government that will take into their responsibility the conducting [of new] elections," Allawi told Al Sharqiya television channel.
A three-judge panel attached to Iraq's election commission ordered a manual recount of the vote in Baghdad at the request of Maliki's alliance, which had finished a close second to Allawi's Iraqiya slate. The recount, expected to begin next week, could very well open the door for further recounts around the country, and tarnish the credibility of the next government, if Maliki's alliance overtakes Allawi's for the largest number of seats in the parliament.
The same judicial panel Monday banned an elected Iraqiya candidate from the parliament for his alleged ties to the late President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The court is soon expected to rule on nine other elected lawmakers accused of having been members of Hussein's party. The majority of them are in Allawi's Iraqiya coalition.
Allawi, a secular Shiite, urged the United Nations and other international organizations to back him in his demand for a caretaker government and a new vote, if matters continue on the current path.
"There are some attempts to confiscate the will of the Iraqi people, our constitution and the democratic right, and we cannot accept this," Allawi said.
Both the U.N. and the U.S. Embassy here had hailed the initial election results as credible and warned against a recount. They had also been critical of the process of banning candidates with Baathist ties from office. Despite their best efforts at mediation before the vote, the Iraqi government carried out an initial purge of more than 500 candidates from the ballot.
With U.S. forces due to draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of August, it is unclear how the Americans can bring influence to bear, in sharp contrast to elections four years ago, when U.S. officials played a major role in helping resolve conflict.
Even within Iraq's main Shiite-led political blocs, there is division about recounts and a possible purge of lawmakers elected last month. The question of membership in the Baath Party remains one of the most emotional and volatile issues in Iraqi politics, and one where Shiite political figures are often reluctant to be seen as defenders of accused Baathists.
The push to bar candidates originated with Maliki's Shiite rival Ahmad Chalabi, but the prime minster publicly backed the measures before last month's vote and now stands to benefit. Still, on all sides, elected lawmakers appear nervous.
"This is a difficult time for the Iraqi people. They expected when they participated in the elections that soon there would be a government to solve their problems," said Jabr Habeeb Jabr, a member of Maliki's State of Law alliance. He worried that dark times could return if the results leave Sunnis, who dominated the Baath Party before Hussein's overthrow in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, feeling cheated.
"Iraqiya, especially the Sunnis, felt a change was coming. They will be disappointed," Jabr said. "Will they tackle this in peaceful way? Or maybe they will help those carrying weapons."
Kurdish political parties also have been rattled by the perception of drift, if not paralysis. Kurdish groups had backed either an alliance with the main Shiite factions, or a deal with Allawi. But they have since watched the political process slow to a crawl.
"There is a clear tension and lack of harmony. All of this is driving the country to a political vacuum and there is a firm lack of confidence amongst the people in the whole political process," said Adel Barwari, a Kurdish lawmaker. "The current phase is unpredictable and the country is moving toward the abyss. We need some sort of a rescue plan."
Barwari called on the last parliament to convene, a demand also made by Allawi. Many political rivals to Maliki now believe the prime minister is purposely creating a crisis in hope of forcing all groups to turn to him to undertake a second term. They worry that such a circumstance could transform the premier into an authoritarian ruler.
Maliki addressed the allegations in an interview with The Times this month. He mocked those who accused him of authoritarian impulses.
"What I really care about is how the Iraqi people see me, about [the] 1 million votes I enjoyed. So if I was a dictator then maybe the Iraqi people like dictatorship," Maliki said, laughing.
"In Baghdad alone, I have 660,000 voters. [So] maybe Iraqis like dictatorship, because this dictator gave discipline to prevent politicians from hurting the will of the people, and if I was to leave it up to them to manipulate Iraq, then we would never have a state."