Nearly two months after the vote, Iraq's March 7 parliamentary election is still up in the air. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's electoral bloc got two more seats than that of incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But just as that result was to be confirmed, an Iraqi judge last week ordered a recount in Baghdad -- which could erase Allawi's lead.
In an exclusive interview with NPR, Ayad Allawi has threatened to reject the court's decision, throwing the formation of Iraq's government even further into doubt.
Allawi is an avuncular 65-year-old medical doctor whose smile is often compared to that of TV gangster Tony Soprano. In 1971, he left Saddam Hussein's Baath Party for exile in London -- a separation later confirmed when a man, presumed to be an Iraqi agent, attacked Allawi with an ax, nearly killing him.
Allawi helped British and American spy services plot against Saddam in the 1990s. In 2004, the Americans appointed him interim prime minister. In a result that surprised many Iraqis, Allawi's bloc won 91 seats in the new parliament, giving him the first swing at trying to form a coalition.
"We are the winners. We have won the elections, and it is our constitutional duty to form the government," Allawi says.
His nearest rival, Maliki, won 89 seats, but immediately charged fraud. The recount decision last week gave Maliki a boost and a chance of pulling ahead of Allawi. But Allawi points out that he, as well as Iraq's Kurds, also disputed the vote in some other areas of the country.
"If no counting is taking place in other places that have been disputed, including what the Kurds have disputed ... we are not going to acknowledge the result of recount in Baghdad," Allawi says.
He says it's not clear who will do the manual recount, and he has demanded proof that the two-month-old ballot boxes have not been tampered with.
A spokesman for Maliki's bloc said simply that the recount has been ordered by a court of law, and that Allawi should also restrict his actions to the legal process.
But Allawi has even suggested that the entire election may need to be redone. As for fears of instability while Iraq waits to form its new government, Allawi says it's already here.
"The talk about security is false," Allawi says. "The innocent Iraqi blood is being shed every single day in the streets of Iraq."
The extra delay may well push the new government's start date past Sept. 1, when 45,000 U.S. troops will have left Iraq, making it more difficult for the U.S. to intervene if sectarian violence ramps up again. Allawi claims his candidacy represents a step past sectarianism in Iraq: Despite the fact that he is a secular Shiite, it was mostly Sunni voters who put him in the lead position.
"I hope that we are departing the scene of sectarianism. ... Al-Qaida are not wanting to see this happening," he says. "They want to drive a wedge between the various sects in Iraq, but I don't think they will be successful."
Regardless of the recount controversy, either Allawi or Maliki needs much more than the two-seat margin of victory. To reach the magic number of 163 seats for a majority in parliament, they will need support from the other large blocs. Those Kurdish and religious Shiite parties are waiting to see which suitor will come knocking first, and then the bargaining will begin in earnest, and at length.