Iraq prime minister lashes out at rival

Iraq’s prime minister dismissed his rival’s call for international help to resolve the country’s postelection political crisis as the dispute threatens to inflame rifts and undermine American plans for withdrawal.

In a televised speech Friday, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose political bloc finished a close second behind former premier Iyad Allawi’s slate in the March 7 elections, alleged that “regional, international” players were attempting a coup d’etat against his government.

“We have accomplished very much in Iraq,” he said from the southern shrine city of Karbala, the symbolic heartland of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, who were long oppressed under the Sunni-dominated Baath Party government of Saddam Hussein.

“We will not allow any foreign interference in our internal affairs that will breach our sovereignty,” Maliki said.

Allawi pushed this week for new elections and the creation of an internationally backed “caretaker” government if parliamentary candidates on his slate are barred from taking office over allegations of Baathist ties. A caretaker government, Allawi said, could oversee the state’s affairs before a new government is formed.

In the elections, the nation’s once-dominant Sunni Arabs largely supported Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim, in hopes of changing the course of the country, which since Hussein’s overthrow has been politically dominated by religious Shiite political parties close to neighboring Iran, and by ethnic Kurds, who seek greater autonomy for their region in northern Iraq.

Allawi’s slate won two more seats than Maliki’s in the elections, which was praised for its transparency by United Nations and U.S. officials. He said the slender margin gave him first crack at forming a government, but Maliki obtained a court opinion that said whoever could form a coalition with a simple majority in the 325-seat parliament would have the right to form a government.

Both a recount, demanded by Maliki’s supporters, and judicial challenges of pro-Allawi candidates accused of being former members of the outlawed Baath Party, have revived sectarian passions, fueled an atmosphere of suspicion and contributed to an uptick in violence.

On Friday, at least three civilians were killed in a bombing in a market in western Iraq. A night earlier, eight people were killed in a bomb blast outside a liquor store in southeast Baghdad. According to security forces, 274 civilians, 53 soldiers and 39 police officers were killed in political violence in April, along with 48 suspected insurgents.

The election dispute threatens stability as the Obama administration seeks to move ahead with plans to withdraw all but 50,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by September.

In the face of rising domestic and international criticism, Maliki defended his government’s oversight of the elections, pursuit of the recount and the judiciary’s decision to take action against winning candidates on Allawi’s list.

“I don’t know why there are parties criticizing the Iraqi judiciary,” Maliki said. “This demonstrates that there is a regional, international project against Iraq that seeks to overthrow [the government] via the ballot box.”

None of the major political lists gained enough parliamentary seats to form a government without forging a coalition.

In the absence of a clear-cut winner, Maliki said, changing the results “by five or two” seats won’t ultimately make a difference.

Ahmed reported from Baghdad. Daragahi reported from Beirut.