BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi election review panel on Monday ordered a recount of votes cast in Baghdad in the March 7 election, raising the prospect of a change in results that gave a cross-sectarian group backed by Sunnis a slim lead.
Any revision could inflame sectarian tensions at a time when Iraq is emerging from the worst of the fighting between minority Sunnis and majority Shi'ites that was unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Electoral commissioner Hamdiya al-Husseini said the manual recount of more than 2.5 million ballots would begin immediately but she was not sure how long it would take.
The capital accounts for over a fifth of seats in the 325-seat parliament, making it a key prize, and Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law alliance had sought a recount after coming a close second in the election.
"I think the results will be changed after the recount," Maliki said at a news conference.
"This decision is a triumph for Iraqi justice. Everybody must respect the ruling released by the appeal panel because it followed legal procedures," added Maliki, whose personal stature was boosted on Monday by news that Iraqi forces had killed al Qaeda's top two leaders in Iraq.
Seen as a milestone for Iraq as it signs multibillion-dollar deals with global oil firms to develop its vast crude reserves and as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw, last month's ballot produced no outright winner.
The Iraqiya list of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi came in first with 91 seats, according to preliminary results, after winning the broad backing of Sunnis frustrated at the Shi'ite political supremacy since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Maliki's State of Law won 89 seats while their erstwhile Shi'ite allies grouped in the Iraqi National Alliance got around 70. Minority Kurds who enjoy virtual autonomy in the north collectively control about 58 seats.
The blocs have been involved in negotiations to form coalitions to create a working majority in the next parliament and select a prime minister. Those talks are likely to be put on hold until the vote recount is concluded and the various factions know how strong their hands are.
'EDGE OF PRECIPICE'
Maliki's alliance and the INA, led by religious parties with close ties to Tehran, have been inching towards a union that could sideline Allawi, a step that would likely anger Sunnis.
While Allawi is a Shi'ite Muslim, Sunni supporters regard his strong showing in the election as a vindication of their claim that they deserve to exert greater influence over Iraq than they feel they have been granted in the last seven years.
There was no immediate public reaction to the news of the recount from Allawi himself.
Haider al-Mulla, a member of a Sunni party within Allawi's coalition, said the ruling by the review panel showed that Maliki's government had undue influence over the judiciary.
"This decision will result in consequences which throw the legality of the election onto the edge of a precipice and threaten the entire political process," Mulla said.
Husseini of the independent electoral commission said it was only votes in Baghdad that were going to be re-tallied.
"Most of the appeals were about the results in Baghdad and for this reason they only decided to order a recount in Baghdad," she told Reuters.
Tariq Harb, a lawyer for the State of Law, said it presented 24 boxes of files containing proof of voting irregularities to the review panel hearing complaints about the election.
The panel has to finish reviewing more than 300 complaints filed by various parties before the election results can be certified. That could take several more weeks, officials said.