Iraqi Election Results Drag, Could Slow U.S. Plans

It's been almost two weeks since millions of Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new parliament. There are still no confirmed results — other than it's a tight race. Once the results are in, formation of a new government also is expected to take a long time. And that could complicate the U.S. plan to withdraw 45,000 troops by August.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's almost two weeks since millions of Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new parliament, but there are still no confirmed results other than it's a tight race. Once the results are in, formation of a new government is also expected to take a long time. And that could complicate the U.S. plan to withdraw 45,000 troops by August.

NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, Quil Lawrence, joins us now.

Quil, good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: Whats the hold-up?

LAWRENCE: Well, first off, it's an incredibly complicated process with 18 provinces. Each one has a different threshold, the number of votes you need to get in order to guarantee yourself a seat. The ballot itself was about a yard wide and with numbers, not candidates' names.

So, there's a lot of calculating to do, a lot of numbers to plug into computers. They're planning to do this twice and they had warned us that it would take a long time. That said, they're not inspiring a whole lot of confidence. There have been some officials fired. The Iraqi electoral officials said that this was to just make sure that people would have confidence in the results, but it kind of has had the opposite effect.

And they keep on announcing that they're going to announce some results and then sort of backing off and not doing it. It's not inspiring a lot of confidence.

WERTHEIMER: Apart from that, how are the Iraqi people reacting? I mean, they're sort of in limbo.

LAWRENCE: Exactly. There's a lot of frustration. Naturally, around here when you don't have information - even if you do have good information coming out -there are a lot of conspiracy theories that get kicked around. There have been charges of fraud by all of the major parties. The electoral officials say none of them have reached a serious level yet.

But in this sort of vacuum of information, we have even had rumors of assassination attempts. The prime minister went into the hospital last week for what they said was a minor surgery. And the whole city was alive with rumors that someone had shot him and he'd been rushed to the hospital or he'd been poisoned. The information vacuum is leading to a whole lot of theories.

WERTHEIMER: Well, so, what do you think is knowable from the results that have leaked out so far?

LAWRENCE: What we have been hearing is the popular vote numbers. And we're hearing that sitting Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is in a very tight race with former Prime Minister - Caretaker Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi. So, there's been a real horserace there and these numbers coming out about the popular vote and one pulling ahead and surprise that the other has pulled back ahead in the count.

But the problem is it doesn't really matter. As in the United States, the popular vote isn't the indicator, it's how many seats. So, again, we might have a problem here with the popular perception: I voted for Maliki; why isn't he the prime minister, when the system will allow whoever gets the most seats and then grabs the most seats for his coalition to be the actual winner.

And some people are worried that there might be some frustration if the popular vote does not determine the prime minister.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the United States has been looking forward to this election as a time when the drawdown can begin. How does that affect American plans to take troops out of Iraq?

LAWRENCE: Every sign that we've seen here is that they're determined to do this, regardless, to stick to President Obama's timetable, which was to get down to about 50,000 troops by the end of August. And there are about 95,000 right now. They were doing a gradual drawdown already, but they've stopped that, they say, until two months after the elections results.

So, if we get the results by the end of the week - that'll be April, May - and they'll start withdrawing in June, the problem is we're not expected to have a government formed here until at least July. So, it might seem that the U.S. troops are drawing down significantly just as the Iraqi government is entering a very crucial period.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Quil Lawrence is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief.

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