TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran has congratulated Iraqis over an election that is likely to keep a bloc led by its Shi'ite ally, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in power after a campaign in which Tehran's influence was a divisive issue.
Maliki's main challenger, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who headed a secular list mixing Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs, made a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia during the campaign to improve ties with Iran's biggest Sunni rival in the Persian Gulf region.
"All international supervision has confirmed the soundness of the Iraqi elections. This is a success and we congratulate Iraqis," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said at a weekly press briefing on English-language state television.
"We hope we'll be able to see the formation of the new government as soon as possible...the whole region will benefit from security in Iraq."
Early results from the March 7 parliamentary vote show Maliki's State of Law bloc ahead in seven of 18 provinces, while strong Sunni Arab support has propelled Allawi's secularist Al-Iraqiyah list into second.
A member of Iraq's Shi'ite Arab majority, Maliki has maintained close ties with non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran, Iraq's neighbor, which is locked in dispute with the United States over its nuclear energy program and influence in Arab countries.
Analysts say leading Sunni Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be more comfortable with a government led by Allawi.
Politicians have criticized the delay in publishing the election results.
Allawi's list has put forward a long list of complaints about alleged fraud, including ballots found in garbage and more than 200,000 soldiers who were unable to vote because their names did not appear on official rosters.
Maliki, who came to power in 2005, was unpopular in Arab capitals when sectarian fighting worsened in 2006, confirming the marginalization of Sunni Arabs who dominated Iraq under former leader Saddam Hussein.
Sunnis see Maliki as a Shi'ite leader beholden to Tehran.
The United States, which toppled Hussein in 2003, still has troops in Iraq who are preparing to withdraw before 2012 -- a process that could be key to U.S. President Barack Obama's political fortunes.