BAGHDAD A potentially divisive ruling by an Iraqi review panel on whether to wipe out the votes of nine winning candidates from last month's election has been delayed, possibly until next week, officials said on Tuesday.
On Monday, the panel threw the Iraqi political process into turmoil after invalidating votes cast for 52 other candidates in the March 7 ballot, which produced no outright winner and left the country adrift in a political vacuum.
The decision to debar candidates with alleged links to the late Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party cast doubt on the slim, two-seat lead of the cross-sectarian Iraqiya alliance.
It raised fears of a spike in violence if Sunnis who backed Iraqiya react angrily, just as Iraq is leaving behind the bloodshed unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
One winning candidate for Iraqiya was affected by Monday's ruling. But members of the alliance, led by ex-premier Iyad Allawi, expect no change in its final tally of parliamentary seats because the candidate would be replaced by the next Iraqiya nominee in line in the same constituency.
A separate decision that had been expected on Tuesday over the fate of nine winning candidates was seen as more significant and more likely to affect the result.
"It has been postponed till Monday," said Faraj al-Haidari, head of the Independent High Electoral Commission.
Other politicians said they thought the review panel might return to the case on Wednesday.
"What we heard is that it has been delayed until tomorrow, but as they say, no one knows how far away tomorrow is," said Mustafa al-Hiti, a senior member of Iraqiya. The decision, when it comes, is not subject to appeal.
Iraqiya leaders said the alliance could lose one or two seats if the panel invalidated the votes given to those nine candidates, also on the grounds of alleged Baathist links. Eight of the group of nine winning candidates belong to Iraqiya.
Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's bloc, which trailed just behind Iraqiya, could conceivably benefit.
Any reduction in Iraqiya's representation might anger minority Sunnis, who gave it strong support, and inflame the sectarian tensions that almost ripped the country apart in the years following the invasion.
The controversy comes at a sensitive time for war-damaged Iraq as it tries to shake off years of Sunni-Shi'ite violence, and defeat a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency while U.S. troops prepare to withdraw before 2012.
U.S. Ambassador Chris Hill expressed concern on Monday at the lack of a certified election result almost two months after the vote, and urged Iraqi politicians to "get this show on the road."
Allawi on Tuesday reiterated his bloc's objection to the court's decision to discard the votes.
"We are not going to accept ... the confiscation of the constitution and the will of the Iraqi people," he said during a visit to Ankara where he met the Turkish president.
"I don't want to talk about theoretical questions, but all the options are on the table."
Infuriated Iraqiya leaders have said they might seek a new election and Allawi instructed lawyers to appeal against Monday's ruling. [ID:nLDE63P159] Iraqiya is likely to decide on its next step after the fate of the eight winning candidates is clear.
(Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Michael Christie and Mark Trevelyan)