BAGHDAD – The Iraqi prime minister on Friday harshly criticized his rival’s calls for international involvement in setting up a new government following the close-fought parliamentary elections, saying such a role would harm Iraq’s efforts to become fully independent.

In the latest escalation of the war of words in Iraq’s post-election impasse since the March 7 vote, Nouri al-Maliki also hinted at some sort of international plot to stage a coup through ballots.

Al-Maliki’s Shiite coalition narrowly lost by two seats to former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s cross-sectarian Iraqiya, but neither garnered enough to rule alone, setting off protracted wrangling over the formation of the next government.

Al-Maliki’s bloc has since requested recounts in several provinces, in what others have said were attempts to hold on to power. Also, a commission responsible for vetting candidates for ties to old regime has recommended disqualifying several Iraqiya winners.

The moves prompted Allawi to warn of an effort to “steal” the election and to call for an international supervised caretaker government to oversee the process of determining the election results and forming a new government.

Even al-Maliki’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, suggested Thursday that the U.N. could become more involved in the process.

But al-Maliki argued Friday that any further involvement of international organizations would only delay Iraq’s efforts to end a United Nations mandate and become fully sovereign.

“Look at the delegations that are roaming several countries and demanding an intervention in a national issue in which nobody should interfere,” he said in an apparent reference to Allawi, who had just completed trips to Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

“I ask them and the Iraqi people about the meaning of these delegations going out and crying for help. What happened to them so that they scream to the world,” he said in a speech at the holy city of Karbala.

A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in the country, echoed the prime minister in his Friday prayer sermon and urged Iraqis to solve their own problems, rather than relying on external forces.

“We are the sons of one country and the burden can only be carried by its people,” said Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie from Karbala.

In his strongest words yet in the post-election turmoil, the cleric expressed concern about the political deadlock and urged the bickering factions to sit down together and come to an agreement.

“The political sides must accept the different elements of this country and its people. Each must tolerate the other … enough with the conflicts, blood and bleeding,” he said.

Al-Maliki defended his calls for a recount, which is expected to last at least a couple of weeks, as a way of assuaging voters’ anger that their ballots might have disappeared or been incorrectly counted, and suggested that efforts to stop the recount were part of an international plot to remove him from power.

“This gives us an impression that there is a regional and international project that wants to mount a coup through ballots, otherwise why this big fuss and weeping in the world over the recount issue?” he said.

Despite numerous calls for recounts by a number of parties, only al-Maliki’s request for a recount in Baghdad province was approved. With 68 seats up for grabs, Baghdad is the largest electoral district and a recount could reverse Allawi’s slim lead. The recount is expected to start Monday and could take weeks.