By Ahmed Rasheed, Raya Jalabi and Ahmed Aboulenein
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's election commission ignored an anti-corruption body's warnings about the credibility of electronic vote-counting machines used in May's parliamentary election, according to investigators and a document seen by Reuters.
The devices, provided by South Korean company Miru Systems under a deal with the Independent High Elections Commission (IHEC), are at the heart of fraud allegations that led to a manual recount in some areas after the May 12 election.
The results of the recount have not yet been announced and political leaders are still trying to form a government.
Concerns about the election count centre on discrepancies in the tallying of votes by the voting machines, mainly in the Kurdish province of Sulaimaniya and the ethnically-mixed province of Kirkuk, and suggestions that the devices could have been tampered with or hacked into to skew the result.
Iraq's Board of Supreme Audit (BSA) expressed reservations about the vote-counting system in a report it sent to the IHEC on May 9, three days before the election.
The BSA said in the report, seen by Reuters, that the IHEC had not responded to 11 concerns it had raised -- including over contractual procedures, the inspection of company documents and a failure to properly examine the devices for any flaws.
"Hereby, we found that ignoring and not responding to the report's findings is considered a clear legal violation contributed to the passage of the electronic vote counting devices despite its unsuitability and easiness of being tampered," the BSA said in the report.
The report also referred to a letter from the Iraqi embassy in South Korea saying Miru Systems had assembled but not manufactured the equipment sent to Baghdad, and suggesting the price tag should have been lower.
The IHEC's failure to act on the report's findings could fuel calls for the election to be rerun, a concern for populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the political bloc that won on May 12.
IHEC officials declined to comment.
A Miru official who spoke on condition of anonymity dismissed the assertion in the letter, saying the company had manufactured the equipment. He also said the "equipment does not lie" and that he and five other Miru employees had travelled to Iraq to examine the machines and found no evidence of hacking.
"We have checked our election device provided to Iraq after the fraud allegation erupted, and found out that there has been no malfunction in the device nor its system," he said.
"We have already submitted the report to Iraq's national election commission after making a thorough check on the device."
Sadr has expressed concern about the situation.
"There are fears that the recount process will be a preamble to repeat the election and infringe on people's votes. Thereby it will be a burial of the democratic process and will cut turnout in the future," Sadr said in late June.
The election was the first in which an electronic vote-counting system has been used in Iraq. The digitised system was intended to help regulate and speed up vote-counting.
The BSA report said the contract with Miru was worth just over $97 million though the man who was the country's chief electoral officer said in April the deal was worth $135 million.
Abdul Kareem Abtan, a member of a parliamentary fact-finding committee formed to investigate whether fraud was linked to the devices, said the committee had concerns about the system.
"The electronic vote counting devices were useless and completely not secure from tampering, and our conclusion was corroborated by results reached by a professional technical team from the Iraqi National Intelligence Service," he told Reuters, referring to intelligence service representatives who were part of the committee.
A BSA official told Reuters an IHEC director had signed the contract with Miru in March 2017. The BSA official spoke on condition he was not named as he is not authorised to speak on the issue.
A law passed by parliament suspended the IHEC's nine-member board of commissioners in June and replaced the commissioners with judges.
Aziz al-Kheqani, the IHEC's media manager when the fraud allegations surfaced, said he was no longer authorised to comment for the election commission.
UNDER SCRUTINY BEFORE
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose alliance came third in the election, said on June 5 that a government investigation had found serious violations in the election and blamed the IHEC for most of them.
Parliament later ordered the manual recount. Most of the parliamentarians who pushed for the recount had lost their seats in the election.
The political uncertainty has fuelled tensions at a time when public impatience is growing over poor basic services, unemployment and the slow pace of rebuilding after a three-year war with Islamic State which cost tens of billions of dollars.
The frustrations caused protests in some southern cities last month.
Miru's electronic voting machines have come under scrutiny elsewhere, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the opposition has raised concerns before an election scheduled for December.
The DRC's national electoral commission says Miru Systems have an "excellent record" in providing electoral equipment.
(Additional reporting by Haejin Choi and Ju-min Park in Seoul, Aaron Ross in Kinshaha, Luc Cohen in Buenos Aires and Olga Dzyubenko in Bishkek; Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by Timothy Heritage)