Secularist Iyad Allawi edged ahead of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Saturday in a neck-and-neck election race.
The new results from Iraq's electoral commission, with about 93 percent of an early vote count complete, gave a lead of some 8,000 votes to Allawi, a Shi'ite former prime minister with wide support among minority Sunnis who fear consolidation of the dominance of Shi'ite religious parties in Iraq since 2003.
The lead in the popular vote has changed hands several times and the eventual winner may be able to claim a symbolic victory, but no matter the final result both Maliki and Allawi's will need to engage in talks to try to form a coalition capable of forming a government.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died since U.S.-led occupation, along with more than 4,000 foreign soldiers.
Maliki, who has won over many Iraqis with his nationalist rhetoric, leads in seven provinces in central and southern Iraq, six of them mainly Shi'ite.
The prime minister now has a narrow 6-percent lead over Allawi in Baghdad, the diverse capital city, but he has virtually no support in largely Sunni provinces where many are sceptical of his Shi'ite Islamist roots and condemn his support of a ban of hundreds of candidates, including prominent Sunnis.
Allawi, who has tried to model himself as a non-sectarian outsider, swept western and northern areas home to large numbers of Sunni Arabs. The physician and fluent English speaker holds a narrow lead over a Kurdish bloc in Kirkuk, the disputed city that is Iraq's northern oil hub.
Both Maliki and Allawi supporters are predicting they will get more than 90 seats in Iraq's 325-member parliament.
Full early results will be released in the next few days, and final results may take weeks.
Each camp has suggested that an alliance between the two men is unlikely, making it even more important where other contenders, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a Shi'ite bloc, and an alliance of two leading Kurdish parties, will throw their weight.
Even before full results are out, fissures are appearing in electoral blocs such as the INA, suggesting the calculus of coalition-building will be even more complex than expected.
Both State of Law and Iraqiya have complained of vote irregularities, and such an outcry could intensify if one bloc feels it was edged out of an outright win.
Compared to the 543,747 votes Maliki himself got, and 354,097 for Allawi, Interior Minister Jawad Bolani got just 2,992 votes. Defence Minister Abdel Qader Jassim did even worse, with a personal tally of only 687 votes.
Iraq's electoral commission has yet to announce results for voting abroad, which is expected to add support for Allawi, and the results of special voting that includes soldiers, police, prison inmates and the infirm.
ReutersGüncelleme Tarihi: 21 Mart 2010, 09:56