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Iraqi election commission rejects al-Maliki recount

BAGHDAD - Iraq's electoral commission rejected demands from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani Sunday for a manual recount of ballots, saying there was no justification for further delaying the results of the March 7 parliamentary polls.

"We'd have to hire more than 350,000 employees and, if we didn't hire that many, we'd need three years to recount [by hand]," said Faraj al-Haidari, chairman of the Independent High Electoral Commission, the parliament-appointed panel supervising the election.

He added that no one had presented evidence of widespread fraud to merit such a drastic measure.

With 95 percent of votes counted, al-Maliki's State of Law coalition is neck-and-neck with the Iraqiya bloc led by the secular former prime minister, Ayad Allawi. Al-Maliki held a slight lead in the number of legislative seats won per province, the factor that determines the winner, but Allawi was a few thousand ballots ahead in the popular vote, according to the commission's figures. Final results will be announced Friday.

Al-Maliki, a conservative Shia Muslim, demanded a recount in an ominously worded statement that said such a move would "preserve political stability" and prevent "the return of violence." Talabani, a Kurd, followed with a statement that also called for another tally, "to preclude any doubts or confusion." The two politicians stressed they were making the demands as Iraq's top leaders, not as candidates.

It was an odd reversal of positions in an election whose results have been pending for two weeks. Only a week ago, it was Allawi's camp that was claiming fraud.

"Al-Maliki believes in democracy as long as it brings him to power," said Maysoun al-Damlouji, an Allawi running mate and spokeswoman.

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