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Thin Margin Between Leaders in Iraq Vote

The leading blocs in Iraq's March 7 parliamentary election are separated by a slim margin of one or two seats, the head of the country's election commission said Thursday, a day ahead of the scheduled release of the complete vote tallies.

Independent High Electoral Commission chief Faraj al-Haidari also told The Associated Press the vote tallying in the historic election was complete and that the commission was expected to sort through dozens of outstanding electoral complaints by the end of the day before announcing the full results Friday.

But political tensions were rising across Iraq on the eve of the announcement, prompting Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani to demand a delay in the release of the full results because of security concerns.

Al-Bolani said there had been violations and fraud during the March 7 vote and that tensions between political blocs may spill over to their supporters on the streets. He said a postponement would preserve security and ensure a peaceful transition of power.

It was not immediately clear how much weight al-Bolani's demand carried. A Shiite official who enjoys popularity among the police force he oversees, al-Bolani took part in the elections but his party got few votes.

In the overall tally after 95 percent of the votes counted, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition narrowly trails a bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Al-Haidari, the commission chief, declined to say which side looked set to take the largest number of seats in the 325-member legislature, only acknowledging that the race was close.

"The difference between the leader and the second place will be one to two seats," he said.

Though behind his rival in the overall vote tally, al-Maliki's coalition is ahead in seven of Iraq's 18 provinces, compared to Allawi's five. That is significant because the allocation of parliament's seats is based on votes counted province by province and not nationwide. The number of lawmakers sent by each province to parliament varies according to their population.

Such a narrow victory could intensify political tensions.

Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, on Sunday called for a recount to "preclude any doubt and misunderstanding" about the results. He said he was issuing the call as president in the interest of justice and transparency, though the Kurdish leader's own coalition is losing to Allawi's secular alliance in a key province.

The electoral commission, an independent body appointed by parliament, has rejected calls for a recount. After the announcement on Friday, political blocs will have three days starting Saturday to appeal the results.

The commission then submits its results to the country's Supreme Court for ratification. The vote results become final after verification by the court.

A recount or a protracted election dispute could complicate the seating of a new government. In Iraq's fledgling democracy, such periods of political instability were in the past accompanied by a spike in violence, as debates not settled at the negotiating table were taken to the streets.

The interior minister, al-Bolani, said a delay in announcing the results would provide time for a round-table of all political parties on allegations of fraud and vote rigging. It would help boost confidence among the blocs and that would filter down to the rank-and-file, he said.

"We do not want to lose the security gains we have attained so far," said al-Bolani. "We want the handover of power in a peaceful manner."

In southwestern Baghdad, a pre-dawn roadside bomb Thursday killed a commandeer of a Sunni pro-government militia and wounded two of his aides. In an eastern neighborhood, gunmen raided a house, killing a woman and her daughter before fleeing the scene.

In the disputed northern town of Kirkuk, gunmen kidnapped Hashim Mohammed Saleem, a Turkomen physician, said police Brig. Gen. Burhan Tayeb Taha.

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