(RFE/RL) -- With nearly 80 percent of the votes counted from Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections, the main winners appear to be Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and challenger Iyad Allawi.
But the two front-runners are neck and neck. The vote count so far shows Allawi's Al-Iraqiyah coalition narrowly ahead of Maliki's State of Law alliance by less than 9,000 votes.
The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of Shi'ite religious groups, looks set to come in third, followed by the Kurdistan Alliance, composed of the two main factions in the autonomous Kurdish region.
With 20 percent of the vote remaining to be counted, the balance between the two front-runners still could easily tip either way.
But what appears almost certain is that neither will be able to amass enough seats in parliament to rule alone.
Already in Baghdad the talk is all about coalition building, and which party will partner with others.
One senior candidate with the Al-Iraqiyah list, Intisar Allawi, a relative of Allawi, said on March 16 that the group held "very good and positive talks" with the Iraqi National Alliance and with the Kurdistan Alliance.
At the same time, Prime Minister Maliki has invited all parties in Iraq to join negotiations with his State of Law alliance.
With tensions high, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) is cautioning that final vote tallies won't be known for some time yet.
"We need another few days to announce the final results of the elections. We will hold a news conference to announce the results, following a meeting of IHEC's board of commissioners to ratify the final results," an IHEC official said on March 16.
Complicating the announcement of final results are the charges of vote fraud lodged by many parties, including both front-runners. However, UN officials advising the IHEC have said they see no evidence of vote fraud widespread enough to undermine the outcome.
Redrawing Political Map
It is already clear that the balance of power in the new Iraqi parliament will be very different from what it is today.
The parliament has been dominated over the past four years by an alliance of Shi'ite religious parties. Those parties swept the first Iraqi parliamentary elections in 2005, when Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the polls.
Now, the Sunnis have come back to the ballot box, helping propel Allawi's secular bloc to prominence. By contrast, the Shi'ite religious parties have lost ground to both Allawi and Maliki, who also ran on a secular and nationalist message.
The only group among the previously dominant Shi'ite religious parties that appears to have gained ground with this month's election is that of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr has always been a maverick in Iraqi politics -- at times a violent one. His group demands an immediate U.S. troop withdrawal and fought U.S. forces in 2004. It also was blamed for some of the country's worst sectarian violence before it was suppressed by the Iraqi military in 2008.
In the north, the partial vote tally for the flashpoint province of Kirkuk shows little sign tensions there will be eased by the election results.
Allawi's nationalist list holds only a slim lead there over its main challenger, the Kurdistan Alliance. The oil-rich province is claimed by three different Iraqi ethnic groups: Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans.
U.S. Withdrawal 'On Schedule'
U.S. officials are counting on the latest parliamentary elections to help smooth the way for Washington's planned troop withdrawal.
The United States hopes by the end of August to halve the number of its troops in Iraq to 50,000. Those remaining are to engage only in noncombat operations, such as training.
U.S. commanders have called the largely peaceful voting on March 7 a sign the country could be on the road to stability.
U.S. General David Petraeus told a U.S. Senate panel on March 16 he planned to stick to the withdrawal timetable, which envisages removing all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.
But he also noted that the situation in Iraq remained fragile. He said the U.S. military was still reviewing its plans for how best to manage its drawdown.