Iraq election recount battle over, now comes the hard part

At an unusual Baghdad gathering of key players, tensions eased over the Iraq election results. But the effort to form a coalition government and choose Iraqi's new prime minister and president still in the early stages.

By , Correspondent

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    Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks to the press during a reopening ceremony for the ministry of foreign affairs in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday. At this gathering of key players, tensions eased over Iraq's May 6 election results.
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The tense challenges to Iraq’s March 7 election results appear over – breaking one political log jam. But the impasse over who will be the prime minister, president, and participate in the ruling government coalition will likely continue for months.

At an unusual gathering Wednesday of Iraq’s key political players, international diplomats, and government officials, there was a palpable sense of relief that the country’s post-election drama has been dialed down a notch after a vote recount.

“Hopefully it will be a matter of not so many more days before … the [election] results will be ratified by the supreme court,” says Ad Melkert, the UN special envoy to Iraq. “That will open the possibility in about two weeks time for the new parliament to be convened.”

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Parliament convening will set in motion a series of steps that will eventually lead to a president and prime minister being decided – a process still expected to take several months.

“We respectfully wish and urge the leaders of Iraq to surprise us all in forming a new government in a short space of time,” said Greek Ambassador Panayotis Macris, the dean of the foreign diplomatic corps, addressing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other dignitaries gathered for the ceremony re-opening the foreign ministry building, which was bombed last August.

Election officials last week announced that a manual recount of more than two million votes cast in Baghdad found no evidence of significant fraud. Despite assertions by the United Nations that the March 7 elections had been credible, Prime Minister Maliki had demanded the recount after saying he’d been robbed of hundreds of thousands of votes.

The completion of the recount and investigation of the remaining electoral challenges paves for the way for the court to certify the election results – 2-1/2 months after Iraqis went to the polls.

Nine candidates reinstated

In a second significant development, an appeals panel ruled that nine candidates who had won seats but were banned from taking office because of alleged Baathist ties had won their appeals and could be seated in the new parliament. Some political leaders had warned that allowing the bans to stand would drive the country back into civil war.

“The Iraqis have made very clear that they will do this themselves in their own way so we’ll have to see what emerges,” says US Ambassador Chris Hill. “Our concern is that they do it sooner rather than later and that they understand there is much to be done to rebuild this country – not just this foreign ministry but the rest of the country.”

Forty-two ministry employees were killed and hundreds wounded when a massive suicide truck bomb detonated outside the foreign ministry last August. It was followed by a wave of other bombings claimed by Al Qaeda in Iraq against government targets. The foreign ministry, where engineers have worked virtually around the clock for months, was the first to be rebuilt and officially re-opened Wednesday by Maliki.

Guess who's coming to lunch?

As waiters passed canapés around at a reception following the ceremony, much of the talk was over who would show up for a presidential lunch on Thursday aimed at bringing political leaders together.

More than two months after the vote, Maliki and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi - leaders of two political blocs considered essential to a coalition government - have still not met.

Mr. Allawi, apparently passing up President Jalal Talabani’s lunch invitation, left the country on Wednesday on one of his frequent foreign trips.

Maliki’s State of Law coalition has aligned with another Shiite bloc but most of the talks between those two political groups have been over who would lead the alliance and get to be prime minister rather than how to reach out to other parties to build a functioning coalition government.

“Nobody can claim up front the prime minister’s position – this must be a matter of negotiation,” says Mr. Melkert, the UN envoy. “I think that’s the first step that needs to be taken and it should be well understood by everyone.”

“Those bilateral talks are meant to evolve into this kind of round table setting where all of the major blocs will be represented as part of a major government,” he says, adding that although it would likely take time, he was “not pessimistic” about the prospect of agreement.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, part of the leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Party, says he expects it could take months to bring together the two main Shiite blocs together with the Kurdish parties and Allawi’s secular, more Sunni coalition.

“This time the situation is more difficult because there is no clear-cut winner who will take the lead,” he says. “After two months, the leaders of the winning blocks have not been able to have one single meeting together so it tells you the personality class, the agenda clash…to reach an acceptable formula there are four winning blocs these need to come together if you want to form a coalition government.”

As Maliki left the reception, one of his top political advisers, Sadiq al-Rakabi, insisted there is an awareness on the part of his State of Law coalition that it has to be an inclusive government.

“We have to reach a compromise solution – it’s the only way,” he said.

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(This story was edited after posting to correct the date of Iraq's election).

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