BAGHDAD — An Iraqi court threw the nation's disputed election into deeper disarray Monday by disqualifying 52 candidates, including one winner, in a legal ruling that cast doubt on the slim lead of a Sunni-backed alliance over the prime minister's political coalition.
The decision by the three-judge election court intensified political turmoil and dealt a new setback to efforts to form a new government in Iraq nearly two months after the vote for a new 325-member parliament, which must select the next prime minister.
U.S. officials had hoped the elections would boost efforts to reconcile Iraq's divided ethnic and religious groups as American military forces prepare to withdraw combat forces by September, with the rest to follow by the end of next year. But the maneuvering following the inconclusive vote instead has created a giant political vacuum and fears of new violence.
It also threatened to anger anew Sunni voters, who had thrown their support behind secular candidate Ayad Allawi's bloc to give it a two-seat lead.
The winning candidate who would lose his seat was from Allawi's Iraqiya coalition. Sunnis largely have spurned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and their anger against the Shiite-led government in 2006 and 2007 was one of the key motivators for their bloody insurgency that only recently abated.
The court also is considering the fate of at least seven other winning Iraqiya candidates who are accused of having ties to Saddam Hussein's ousted Baath Party. That decision, which is expected as early as Tuesday, could deal a fatal blow to Allawi's lead.
Iraqiya, which captured 91 parliamentary seats compared with 89 for al-Maliki's State of Law alliance, promised to fight the ruling and call for a new election if it is upheld.
"We will not accept such an unjust decision, and we will not stand still to such illegal and illegitimate measures," Allawi's spokesman Abdul-Rahman al-Bayder said, adding that the court order "endangers the whole political process and democracy in Iraq."
A member of the Independent High Electoral Commission, Saad al-Rawi, cautioned it was still unclear if Monday's decision would change the vote results. The banned candidates have a month to appeal the decision.
If upheld, Monday's decision meant ballots cast for all 52 disqualified candidates would be voided, requiring a new tally. But al-Rawi said most, including 22 from Iraqiya, received only limited support.
Iraqiya and other coalitions can replace the barred candidates with others from their lists as long as their blocs maintain the same level of overall votes, al-Rawi said.
The actions compounded tensions that were sparked before the March 7 vote, when a controversial, Shiite-led vetting panel tossed out hundreds of vote-seekers because of suspected Baathist ties in a move that was seen as trying to dilute Sunni influence in the election.
The 52 candidates disqualified Monday had been named to replace some of those previously banned.
Electoral commission chief Faraj al-Haidari said only one candidate among those banned had won a seat in the vote, and identified him as Ibrahim al-Mutlaq of Iraqiya. Al-Mutlaq, the brother of another banned prominent Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, called the court's ruling a political move to weaken their alliance.
Al-Maliki has fiercely challenged the election results, successfully demanding a court-ordered ballot recount in Baghdad that could further complicate the process.
The electoral commission chief said the Baghdad recount would begin in a few days, although he criticized it as a political decision.
"We, as IHEC, consider the decision taken by the court to be incorrect," said a visibly exasperated al-Haidari. "Now the other political blocs will also complain, 'Why didn't they respond to our complaints? Why did they just respond to the State of Law complaint?'"
He also rapped the order as vague because it failed to specify whether all votes cast in Baghdad should be recounted, or just those from 1,021 ballot stations in the capital where complaints were raised.
Iraq's election law allows for all parties to appeal the election results, even after each recount, meaning the process could drag out for months.
In an interview aired late Monday with Iraqi state TV, al-Maliki predicted the recount would not take more than a week, saying a new government should not be formed "with the presence of such doubts and appeals."
"I think that this process is very normal and it aims at facilitating the formation of the government," he said.
So far, the court has rejected 140 complaints from political coalitions seeking a review of results and has only granted a recount in Baghdad, al-Haidari said. It is still considering requests from the Kurdish political alliance for a recount in parts of the northern Tamim and Ninevah provinces that are disputed with the Sunni Arabs.
Speaking to reporters Monday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill expressed concern about the delay in forming a new government.
"It seems it is time to get this show on the road here," Hill said.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Rebecca Santana contributed to this report.