The official results from Iraq's parliamentary elections show former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc won two more seats than current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law bloc.
The announcement brings an end to weeks of vote-counting in the high-stakes race.
Iraqiya won 91 seats in the 325-member Council of Representatives, while the State of Law bloc won 89 won seats.
The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of mainly Shi’ite groups, won 70 seats, and Kurdistania, made up of the autonomous Kurdish region's two dominant blocs, won 43 seats. Another 17 seats were won by independent candidates and candidates from smaller parties.
The last 15 seats will be given to members of religious and ethnic minority groups, according to quotas. One quarter of the seats should be filled by women, according to the Iraqi constitution.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the White House congratulates Baghdad and the Iraqi people on "a successful election.”
“International observers and more than 200,000 domestic observers expressed their confidence in the overall integrity of the election and found that there’s no evidence of widespread or serious fraud," Crowley said. "This marks a significant milestone in the ongoing democratic development of Iraq.”
The State Department called on all candidates and parties "to accept the results, respect the will of the Iraqi people, and work together cooperatively to form a new government in a timely manner." The statement continues: "It will be important for all sides to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric and intimidation. It also is important that the Iraqi government continue to provide security and other essential services for its citizens during this period leading to the formation of a government."
As Iraqis waited for the election results today, fresh violence struck the town of Khales in Diyala Province north of Baghdad, with two explosions killing some 40 people. Reports say women and children were among the wounded.
The release of the election results marks the formal start of what may be an even more difficult process: forming a governing coalition.
By failing to produce a decisive winner, the national parliamentary election leaves the field open for not one, but two, major parties to try to seize the initiative in coalition building.
And, by producing at least two potential "kingmaker" groups in the background, the election has opened the way for even some of the losers in the election to exert huge influence in the deal-making.
The result is almost certain to be a months-long period of negotiations over forming a new government -- a process that could severely test the country's recently won stability.
Nabil Ahmed, a correspondent for RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq, says there are no parties immediately strong enough to form a ruling coalition on their own.
Even though former Allawi's Iraqiya took the most votes, his list and the other frontrunner, Maliki's State of Law bloc, emerged essentially neck-and-neck.
Ahmed says that means tough fights ahead. "The winning lists are strong enough to try to make alliances with smaller parties,” he says. “But they also are strong enough to try to break each other apart by wooing away wavering loyalists. So there will be many battles and efforts to create new alliances in the days ahead."
Religious Parties Lose Ground
He notes that this is a much more complicated situation than the last parliamentary election in 2005, when Shi'ite religious parties swept the poll and later allied with the Kurdish bloc to dominate the new parliament. Even so, it took a full six months of tough negotiating to create a coalition stable enough to rule.
This time, the front runners are not Shi'ite religious parties, but secularists or nationalists. Allawi is a Shi'ite secularist. Maliki heads a Shi'ite religious party but has used his years in power to rebrand as a nationalist.
A dream team, from Washington's point of view, might be a coalition uniting Allawi and Maliki. That would marginalize the Shi'ite religious parties, which are actively supported by Iran.
But Ahmed says this is highly unlikely. "There is quite a lot of personal animosity and that will play its part, too, in any deal-making,” he says. “One of the strongest feuds is between Allawi and Maliki. Neither wants to share power with the other, so they are both almost certain to try to outmaneuver each other by reaching out to the third- and fourth-place finishers instead."
The prospect of such maneuvering puts both the third- and the fourth-place finishers in potential kingmaker roles.
The third-place finisher is the Shi'ite religious parties' Iraqi National Alliance and, strongest among them, the loyalists of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
But the Sadrists themselves have deep-seated animosities toward both Allawi and Maliki, dating back to the efforts by both men to crack down on the Sadrists "Mahdi Army." Sadr opposes the U.S. military presence in the country and demands its immediate withdrawal.
Since the election, both Allawi and Maliki have said they are open to alliances with Sadr. But it is not clear at what price. The Sadrists have suggested they could make a deal with Maliki's State of Law Coalition but that they would propose their own candidate for prime minister in Maliki's place.
Both Allawi and Maliki have also held talks with the fourth-place finisher, Kurdistania. The alliance, composed of the two ruling factions in the Kurdish autonomous region -- the KDP and PUK -- is eager to retain its former king-making status despite losing some of their seats in the national parliament to the Kurdish opposition party, Goran.
Ahmed says that because of the highly fragmented political landscape, almost any ruling coalition will -- of necessity -- be more inclusive than the governing coalition in Iraq today.
"Maliki's government sought to include some key Sunni politicians despite the largely Sunni boycott of the parliamentary elections in 2005,” Ahmed says. “But today it is no longer a question of goodwill or national interest to reach out across the political spectrum. It will be the only way to put together a bloc large enough to form a government."
All this makes the coming days a historic moment filled in equal measure with risk and promise.
The risk is that Iraq will fall into an extended political vacuum that also produces a security vacuum -- exactly what happened after the 2005 election.
When the new Iraqi government was finally sworn in six months later in 2006, it faced a significantly worse security situation than before. The country tumbled into a spiral of sectarian violence that was in large part due to the distancing of one group -- the Sunni Arabs -- from the political process.
But the promise is that this time Iraq might break with that violent past. It could happen if forming a ruling coalition requires incorporating and working with parties across the political spectrum. It would be a major departure from Iraq's history of dictators, coups, and one-party rule, and a large step toward becoming a stable parliamentary democracy.
RFE/RL’s Radio Free Iraq and correspondent Heather Maher contributed to this report. With agency reports