Baghdad: An Iraqi review panel on Monday threw the results of a March election into question by invalidating votes cast for 52 candidates, officials said, possibly threatening the slim lead of a Sunni-backed alliance.

It was not immediately clear how many of the candidates barred for alleged ties to Saddam Hussain’s banned Baath party had won seats in the March 7 ballot.

If the result changed, the decision could spark anger among Sunnis just as the sectarian violence unleashed after the 2003 US-led invasion recedes.

“The ruling of the review panel is politically motivated and could be detrimental to the whole democratic process in Iraq,” said Mustafa Al Hiti, a senior member of the cross-sectarian Iraqiya alliance that rode strong Sunni support to gain a two-seat lead in the election.

But Al Hiti told Reuters that Iraqiya, led by former Prime Minister Eyad Allawi, did not expect to lose any of its 91 seats in the next 325-seat parliament as a result.

Tariq Harp, a lawyer for Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki's State of Law coalition, which came second and could benefit the most from any change in the election result, said he believed “two or three winners” could be affected.

The panel's decision came before the expected start next week of a recount of votes in Baghdad, which could also change the result and stir anger among Sunnis who saw Iraqiya’s success as a vindication of their claim to greater political clout.

Sunnis’ resentment at their fall from power after the ousting of Saddam in 2003 helped fuel a sectarian war and a fierce insurgency after the invasion. Iraqis had hoped the election would help the war-damaged country cement improved security and stability.

Instead, the lack of a clear result has spawned protracted political uncertainty as Shi'ite-led, Sunni-backed and Kurdish factions try to negotiate tie-ups that would allow them to gain a working majority and pick the next government.

The impasse has occurred as international oil firms are starting to invest in Iraq’s vast oilfields, launching the country on a path that could more than quadruple its oil output capacity to Saudi levels of 12 million barrels per day.