Iyad Allawi's grip on a lead in the Iraqi elections was in doubt last night after a committee said that four candidates on his winning list should be disqualified due to links to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party.
If the recommendation by the Justice and Accountability Committee is upheld by the courts, the opposition leader Mr Allawi's two-seat advantage over the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could evaporate. Mr Allawi's slender lead is already under threat from Mr Maliki, whose challenge to the electoral outcome escalated yesterday when he attacked the UN for not supporting his call for a recount on the grounds of vote-rigging and fraud.
Even before last night's news, a handful of newly-elected members of parliament opposed to Mr Maliki had already been arrested or gone on the run. The UN says that the poll was fair and transparent.
Mr Maliki is making desperate efforts to prevent Mr Allawi being given the first opportunity to form a government because his political bloc had more members of parliament elected than anybody else. Mr Maliki can harass his opponents by using his control of the security forces and the courts against them. His main political strength is that he remains Prime Minister while negotiations go on to form a new government.
"Nobody should place a bet on Allawi becoming Prime Minister," says the Iraqi political commentator Ghassan Attiyah, "and Maliki is only a little better placed."
Mr Allawi is in a weak position because his al-Iraqiya coalition is disunited and his election success was largely due to the support of the Sunni Arab community, which is only one fifth of Iraq's population. It is not clear how the Sunni community will react if they feel that the election is being stolen from them, but if marginalised they are likely to increase their support for armed action.
Mr Maliki's weakness is that he has too many enemies at home and abroad. He needs to merge his State of Law bloc with the other main Shia party, the Iraqi National Alliance, but the followers of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr won at least 39 out of the INA's 70 seats, and will be chary of any alliance with Mr Maliki. They blame him for betraying them when he ordered the army to crush their Mehdi Army militia in Baghdad and Basra in 2008.
A delegation from the Prime Minister's office has been to see Mr Sadr to persuade him to lift his veto on Mr Maliki remaining Prime Minister. Mr Maliki's lieutenants claim they succeeded in their mission but this is denied by the Sadrists. A coalition of State of Law and the INA would have 157 seats out of 325 in parliament and would demand that it have first go at forming a government.
Mr Maliki will also have to win the support of the Kurdish leaders with whom he has been on very bad terms in recent years. Whatever promises the Prime Minister makes now to the Sadrists and the Kurds, they are unlikely to trust him and are suspicious of his authoritarianism.
Mr Maliki, whose political list won 89 seats compared to Mr Allawi's 91, has sent special forces loyal to him known as the Baghdad Brigade into Diyala province to arrest or drive from their homes opposition members of parliament. It is not clear how far the Prime Minister will go, but it is unlikely that he has the support in the army and police to stage a military coup.
None of the foreign powers involved in Iraq will be sorry to see Mr Maliki go apart from the US, but even Washington is not committed to his survival. The Americans hope for a stable Iraq so the US military withdrawal can go ahead as planned. Saudi Arabia and Syria are hostile to Mr Maliki and Iran is angry that he would not join a Shia united front last year. The departure of the US troops and the success of the Sadrists in the election means that Iranian influence will be higher under the new government.
Mr Maliki did less well in the election than he had expected and was not prepared to pay court to the Sadrists and the Kurds before the poll, as he now must do. In the long run they will probably get rid of him. But his efforts to stay in power may provoke a fresh wave of violence from the Sunni Arabs if they suspect he is trying to steal an election which they thought they had won.Reuse content