An Iraqi court has disqualified two members of the country's newly elected parliament in a move which puts in doubt the outcome of last month's election and is likely to increase political instability in the country.
The winning candidates who have been barred are among 52 candidates disqualified for past association with Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
The ban on them appears to be part of a campaign by the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, to change in his favour the unexpected results of the election, which saw his State of Law bloc narrowly beaten by Iyad Allawi's al-Iraqiya coalition.
Yesterday, Mr Allawi said that his party had instructed lawyers to appeal the decision, saying: "We are very concerned about certain groups controlling the political process in Iraq."
Mr Maliki has successfully demanded a recount of votes in Baghdad which his supporters hope might yield him an extra four seats.
In the 7 March poll Mr Allawi won 91 seats to Mr Maliki's 89, giving Mr Allawi the right to have the first opportunity to form a government.
Fraud is much more likely to take place during the recount than it was during the closely monitored election, according to senior Iraqi political leaders who did not want to be named. They say that the Sunni Arabs who voted overwhelmingly for Mr Allawi and the followers of the anti-American cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr – who also did well – are not going to accept the election being stolen by Mr Maliki.
The special court reviewing election complaints is now likely to receive demands for recounts of the poll in other parts of Iraq, which will long delay final results in the election. The Kurds are likely to demand a recount in the two northern provinces of Nineveh and Kirkuk, where territory is in dispute between Arabs and Kurds.
Some fraud probably did take place in the election because of the lack of a census and unrecorded population movements. Each coalition manipulated its share of the vote upwards in areas where it was strong.
But Mr Maliki and his followers were nevertheless surprised by the strong showing by their opponents, whose popularity they had underestimated. Given that Mr Maliki is in charge of the government machinery, only he was in a position to falsify the outcome of the poll, something he now appears intent on doing retroactively.
The US is pushing Mr Maliki and Mr Allawi to form a coalition government, allowing each man to serve two years as prime minister, or half of the four-year term. This solution has been adopted with success by the two leading parties in Kurdistan.
But a coalition of the two main parties is unlikely to work in the rest of Iraq because Mr Maliki's voters were overwhelmingly Shia and Mr Allawi's, though he himself is Shia, are mostly Sunni. It would also be hard to try to marginalise the Kurds and the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), the other Shia bloc primarily made up of religious parties. Neither the Kurds nor the powerful Sadrist movement, which dominates the INA, wants to see Mr Maliki remain prime minister, though it is not clear who would replace him.
Aside from the US, Iran has had a series of meetings with Iraqi political leaders and would like to see its Shia co-religionists retain power.
Backed by money from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Turkey helped Mr Allawi during the election and his control of the purse strings is one factor holding his disparate coalition together.
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