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Iraqi PM Leads In Tight Vote Count

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (left) and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has edged ahead in early results of an election Iraqis hoped would end years of sectarian strife, but the tight race indicated long and fraught negotiations to form a government.

Early results released on March 14 from 14 of 18 provinces, representing a small share of votes cast, showed Maliki's State of Law bloc ahead in six provinces, including election prizes Baghdad and Basra.

Maliki won almost twice as many votes in southern Basra, ground zero for a wave of new investment into Iraq's rich oil sector, as the Iraqi National Alliance, a group close to Iran that is Maliki's main competitor among Iraq's Shi'ite majority.

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya was a distant third in Basra, but his secularist, cross-sectarian group is in second place overall. New results showed Allawi swept western Anbar province, a stronghold for minority Sunnis whose long political dominance ended with Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003.

The early results represent only around 2 million votes, a small share of about 12 million votes cast, suggesting things may look different once results are finalized weeks from now. The outcome of Iraq's first parliamentary poll since 2005, when it was gripped by catastrophic sectarian bloodletting, will shape its future as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw by 2012.

Anxious politicians have criticized Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) for delaying results for days, heightening tension and drawing attention to charges of fraud.

Allawi's Iraqiya list has put forward a long list of complaints about fraud, including ballots found in the garbage and more than 200,000 soldiers who were unable to vote because their names did not appear on official rosters.

The United Nations, which has been coaching IHEC before and after the March 7 vote, has downplayed the complaints.

Few Iraqi politicians are feeling very understanding.

"Every day that goes by without results, suspicion and fear increases 100 percent," said Jamal al-Bateekh, an Iraqiya candidate. "The results should have been available within a few hours, but there are those who want to alter the results."

Hard-Boiled Politics

Even before a complete national picture emerges, political maneuvering has already kicked into high gear. Even if Maliki fares well, no bloc is expected to win an outright majority and Maliki would likely be forced to ally with other groups.

Both Allawi and the INA have held meetings with minority Kurds, who may prove kingmakers of the day, and Arab politicians are reaching across party lines to explore possible alliances.

While it is too early to say who the ruling coalition may include, a strong showing for Maliki could dampen demands from resentful rivals that he be barred from a second term.

Abdul Hadi al-Hasani, a senior State of Law politician, said State of Law was considering alliance with Kurds and with the INA. Neither had it ruled out allying with Allawi, he said.

Allawi has been a fierce critic of Maliki, and especially when the prime minister supported a ban of hundreds of candidates suspected of ties to Saddam's Baath party, including a senior Sunni candidate on Allawi's list.

But even such animosity may not be an obstacle to alliance in the hard-boiled politics that has characterized post-2003 Iraq.

Political analyst Yahya al-Kubaisy, a researcher at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, warned that a government excluding Iraqiya risked further alienating Sunnis.

"If this happens we must expect a return of violence to Iraq," he said.

A list including two powerful Kurdish parties, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), are sure to try to extract concessions on the disputed oil city of Kirkuk, which they claim as their own.

The presidency may be another bargaining chip.

Kurds have reacted angrily to assertions from some Arab politicians, including Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, that Iraq's next president should be an Arab.

They have again put forward Talabani, an elder statesmen and perhaps the most widely embraced Kurdish politician.

"We further believe that the people of Kurdistan, as a major component of Iraq, must be represented," a statement from the Kurdistan Region Presidency said.