Two months after an election that produced no outright winner, officials in Iraq this week began a recount of ballots cast in Baghdad as the war-torn nation's fragile security and hopes for stability hung in the balance.
Two months of uncertainty in Iraq raise fears of instability
The Independent High Electoral Commission's (IHEC) manual recount which began Monday - and the situation which led to it - is threatening to undermine efforts to shore up Iraq's embryonic democracy while concerns are growing that the power struggle among the main candidates could stoke sectarian tension.
Prompted by a successful appeal by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who alleged that he had lost votes due to widespread fraud and intimidation at polling centers in the Iraqi capital during the March 7 ballot, the recount has further paralysed the formation of a new government, leaving Iraq vulnerable to internal and external agitators.
While Maliki claims foul play in Baghdad, by far the biggest prize in the election with 70 seats on offer, some observers believe that he and his opponent, ex-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, are locked in a personal power struggle and that Iraq's democratic future is being put at risk by the two candidates' personal ambition and antipathy between them.
Candidates Allawi and Maliki are wrestling for control of Iraq
"Both desperately seek the premiership," Ranj Alaaldin, a Middle East political and security risk analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Deutsche Welle.
"Deals have been proposed behind the scenes, whereby one could have some other senior position, like foreign minister, but neither of them would be content with playing second fiddle to the other."
Former Premier Iyad Allawi's secular Iraqiya coalition won the national election - the second in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion - defeating Maliki by 91 votes to 89, according to results still to be ratified by the Supreme Court. Maliki won the vote in Baghdad, taking 26 seats compared to Allawi's 24, but the recount could lead to a wider winning margin for the Maliki in the capital, allowing him to eventually overturn his two-seat defeat nationally.
However, both candidates need 163 seats to form a majority government and the inconclusive poll has given none of the main players the outright majority needed to form a government alone.
Leadership battle and security rest on coalition approval
Iraq's smaller parties could have the say where the power lies and whether any transition is peaceful
Both Maliki and Allawi have tried to broker coalition deals with smaller parties, specifically with the powerful Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance (INA) but neither have had much success and the stalled talks have added to the sense of uncertainty over the fate of the government.
The INA's involvement not only holds the key to forming a government but the approval of two of the main Shi'ite players within its ranks - followers of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council - could dictate whether a fragile peace continues or a new sectarian conflict in unleashed.
"The INA has 70 seats to its name, which is significant enough for it to be able to make or break a government," said Alaaldin. "INA support for either one of the candidates would essentially put them into the premier's office. Given that it could provide for a bridging together of one essentially Sunni grouping (Allawi's bloc) and another Shia one, Allawi would benefit more from INA support since it may give him unquestionable cross-sectarian legitimacy."
Al-Sadr: the reluctant kingmaker
Al-Sadr holds the cards to both a solution and further chaos
"The Sadrists won around 39 seats and, therefore, have emerged as potential kingmakers and arguably the backbone of the INA," he added.
"Which way they'll go is not easy to define since the Sadrists have history with both Maliki and Allawi. Much will depend on their demands and conditions and they will look to make their mark with control of one of the major ministries. Yet, they may just prefer to stay in opposition, as they consider themselves a movement and not a political party, and continue to build on their grass-root support base."
Should the Sadrists choose to enter government, they would face an ideological dilemma: any serious involvement with the Iraqi government would require them to engage with the US and other foreign entities - which is currently one of al-Sadr's red-lines. Experts believe the Sadrists may hold off on a decision because of this, resulting in a longer period of uncertainty over who rules Iraq.
Alaaldin believes that the impasse has created a vacuum and uncertainty, which are ideal conditions for extremist elements, but Iraq is no longer the same environment conducive to sectarian war and dominated by foreign jihadists that it was in the recent past.
"There will still be attacks and attempts to reignite sectarian war but domestic-based insurgency members are now part of political entities or assimilated into the army and civil service, while foreign jihadists have been largely eliminated, meaning there is no longer any organised terrorist or insurgency operation in Iraq," he said.
Repercussions for US plans and neighbors' ambitions
US troop withdrawals could be affected by the impasse
Concerns are growing that the impasse could also endanger US plans to end combat operations in August, and encourage neighbors such as Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia to increase their covert influence through their proxy organizations within Iraq.
However, Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, believes that while potential unrest may slow down US plans to leave, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq will not be affected by the situation with the Iraqi government.
"It is extremely unlikely that the US will modify its withdrawal plans," she said. "It would be seen as a sign of the failure of Obama's policy in Iraq, so the government will stick to the plan unless major violence breaks out. Nevertheless, the impasse will affect the US, because the draw-down will take place under suboptimal conditions."
Peaceful resolution possible but complex
One solution for a peaceful settlement to the on-going impasse in government would be for all political blocs to seek a compromise candidate for prime minister acceptable to all, but few believe that neither Maliki nor Allawi would put the stability of Iraq ahead of their own ambitions.
"A peaceful end to the impasse depends on the reactions of the parties to the manual recount and the banning of the candidates, although the latter may not dramatically alter the allocation of seats anyway," said Alaaldin.
"Beyond this, it is a question of overcoming the intransigence of some of the blocs. Let's not forget the Kurds also contest the votes in Kirkuk and Mosul province, so that's also one to watch out for."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge