• Winner faces tough battle to claim mandate to rule
• Election chief says only two seats divide parties
Martin Chulov in Baghdad
After three laborious weeks of counting and foreboding rhetoric, Iraq finally faces its electoral day of reckoning on Friday night, with a result expected in a national poll that is tipped to spark renewed instability on the eve of the planned US withdrawal.
Both key players in the agonisingly close 7 March poll have vowed not to accept the result if they lose, in a clear sign that the winner faces a tough battle to claim a mandate to rule Iraq, which remains deeply divided, despite parts of its war-weary society now starting to function again.
The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, this week invoked his role as commander in chief of the Iraqi military in a statement condemning the manner in which the 13 million votes cast were counted by officials. His ominous calls for a recount have raised fears that fragile security gains could rapidly unravel. A key Maliki loyalist, Sami al-Askari, said the prime minister would not urge a violent uprising if he loses the vote to his secular rival, Iyad Allawi, but warned that events may spiral beyond his control.
"My fear is that things may go beyond Maliki's control," said Askari. "We have heard from about seven to nine provinces in the south and they are calling us all the time asking what to do, shall they return to the streets, or not.
"My problem is that I cannot tell them to calm down and it will all be OK, because I genuinely believe that there was corruption [in the vote counting process] and we have evidence that this happened."
Allawi's Iraqiya coalition raised similar claims earlier in the counting process. But Allawi, a former prime minister, has shifted position as results have increasingly shown that he is within striking distance of returning to the job he held for nine turbulent months before being ousted in early 2005 as Iraq began to slide towards anarchy.
Allawi is thought to have won at least 91 seats in the 325-seat parliament, largely on the back of strong support from Sunni provinces, which strongly supported prominent Sunni candidates on the Iraqiya party's list.
Maliki's State of Law list also polled well, securing at least 90 seats. But it has not scored the clear victory predicted before the voting. With 95% of the votes counted, the two rivals were separated by a mere 11,000 votes. "The difference between the leader and the second place will be one to two seats," the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission, Faraj al-Haidari, told the Associated Press, though he would not say who was ahead.
Maliki's demand for a manual recount has been firmly rebuffed by the electoral commission, as have claims that some commission employees have fiddled the figures to favour Allawi.
Whoever emerges triumphant when the result is declared will in effect be able to claim a moral victory only, then face the arduous task of trying to form a government. The winner will not necessarily have a claim on the prime minister's office.
"If Maliki wins, he isn't guaranteed to return to his job," said Askari. "And if Allawi wins, he is no certainty to be prime minister - far from it. The mechanism for forming the government is difficult and very complicated."
American officials in Baghdad downplayed the suggestion that the counting process had been compromised, saying the claims were largely political posturing.
The US embassy and military, which will advise President Barack Obama within weeks whether pre-set criteria for a mass withdrawal of American troop have been met, also believe that Maliki's warnings do not amount to a call to arms.
"There is nothing that I have heard that would give rise to concerns about a peaceful transition of power," said a senior American official. "I am sensing no panic and no crisis."
Interest in the result is also strong elsewhere in the region, with neighbouring Iran strongly backing the eventual formation of a government led by a Shia strongman such as Maliki. Officials in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, have expressed satisfaction about the strong showing of Allawi, which is likely to rejuvenate the political voice of Iraq's minority Sunnis, who have lost status since the downfall of Saddam Hussein from power seven years ago.
However, Allawi faces a difficult battle to translate his success into power, primarily because many of his supporters are Sunnis. Saddam's fall recast Iraq's electoral landscape to reflect traditional sectarian demographics, which show Shias comprise around 60% of the population.
"This is a problem for him [Allawi]," said another Maliki supporter and leading politician, Haider al-Abadi. "He came on a majority Sunni vote."