BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had a narrow lead over rival Shi’ites, partial results in Iraq’s tight election race showed on Friday, but a secularist challenger remained far ahead in minority Sunni areas.
The race may remain too close to call until initial results are posted for all of Iraq’s 18 provinces, including pivotal areas like Baghdad, the ethnically and religiously diverse capital city, suggesting it may be even harder than expected to form a government if no single bloc emerges as a clear victor.
Initial results released for seven provinces show Maliki’s State of Law bloc slightly ahead of the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a coalition of powerful Shi’ite parties, with a gap of about 20,000 votes of nearly 340,000 counted for the two groups.
In third place was former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya list, a cross-sectarian, secularist group that is well ahead in two provinces home to large numbers of minority Sunnis.
Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission reported partial results from only two provinces on Friday, Maysan and Muthanna, both in the largely Shi’ite south.
The picture following Iraq’s March 7 parliamentary poll, seven years after Saddam Hussein’s ouster, has been muddied by delays from Iraqi electoral officials in giving complete initial results and by mounting accusations of fraud.
The confusing aftermath to the vote represents an inauspicious start to what will likely be lengthy, fractious talks to form a government, especially if the vote is as fragmented as early results suggest.
Violence may have receded, but it lurks under the surface in a country where sectarian wounds have not healed and major questions about land and oil remain unsettled.
Hamdiya al-Husseini, a top IHEC official, dismissed charges of serious fraud coming from Allawi’s camp, including reports that ballots were discovered in the garbage and more than 200,000 soldiers’ names were missing from voting rosters.
“The process of counting and sorting ballots is going well, with the presence of observers from political parties and under international supervision,” Husseini said.
United Nations officials, who are advising IHEC, downplayed the reports of fraud.
A cleric close to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest Shi’ite authority, called for results to be announced quickly and in a way that would lay suspicions to rest.
“This could delay and confuse the start to the next parliament,” Abdul-Mahdi al-Kerbalai said in a Friday sermon.
After Iraq’s last parliamentary election in late 2005, sectarian violence exploded as politicians took months to settle on a government.
A poll of 1,464 Iraqis conducted by British pollster YouGov immediately after the election found a virtual tie between State of Law, with 33 percent, and Iraqiya with 32. INA had 15 percent and an alliance of minority Kurds came in with 11 percent.
The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The coming period is crucial for U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration as it faces an escalating war in Afghanistan, as it plans to halve its troop force by September 1 and withdraw fully by end-2011.
Leading world energy firms will be watching closely to see what sort of government emerges to take over the multi-billion-dollar oil contracts they have signed with Iraq.
Even if Maliki beats out Shi’ite rivals, he will likely need to ally with one or two other blocs to form the next government.
The gulf between Maliki and Allawi, a secular Shi’ite who governed Iraq from 2004-05, widened ahead of the polls as Allawi criticized the ban of hundreds of candidates, including leading Sunni Arabs from Iraqiya, from the elections over suspected ties to Saddam’s Baath party. Maliki supported the ban.
Even if State of Law comes out on top in the election, the tide is against Maliki, with Allawi and INA’s two main factions, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, all opposed to his return as prime minister, IHS Global Insight analyst Gala Riani said in a statement.
“Allawi’s maneuverings, having already cultivated quite a number of regional Arab states ahead of the polls, signal his determination to push Maliki to the side,” she said. (Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed and Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Matthew Jones)