- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2010

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s prime minister edged ahead in a tight race in the country’s parliamentary elections Sunday after partial results from all of 18 provinces showed his bloc leading in seven provinces — two more than his chief rival.

The tally strengthens Nouri al-Maliki’s chances of retaining the prime minister’s post, although he is unlikely to win the majority that would allow him rule alone. Instead, the narrow race could lead to months of political wrangling as leaders try to cobble together a coalition government that will rule as American forces leave Iraq in 2011.

The March 7 vote was Iraq’s second for a full-term government since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

According to the partial count from all of Iraq’s 18 provinces released by the country’s electoral commission, Mr. al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition leads in seven provinces.

His closest challenger, the secular Iraqiya bloc led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, leads in five provinces, while the religious Shi’ite Iraqi National Alliance (INA) and the main Kurdish coalition each lead in three.

The results were based on partial vote counts released over the past three days, with the percentage of polling stations counted in each province ranging from 10 to 67 percent.

In his first public appearance since minor surgery Wednesday, a confident-looking Mr. al-Maliki praised Iraqis Sunday for defying those who used violence to try to keep them from the polls, saying, “The Iraqi people cannot be intimidated.”

Insurgent attacks had killed 36 people on election day.

Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition was ahead in the key, oil-rich province of Basra — home to Iraq’s second-largest city and the center of the country’s oil industry. With about 63 percent of the Basra votes counted, Mr. al-Maliki’s group appeared a definitive winner — nearly 100,000 votes ahead of his closest competitor, the INA.

Mr. al-Maliki was also in front Sunday in Wasit province.

But the biggest boost so far for Mr. al-Maliki came Saturday, when initial results released from Baghdad voting showed him ahead in the all-important capital, which carries 70 seats in the 325-seat assembly.

Mr. Allawi held a surprise lead of about 3,000 votes over a Kurdish alliance in partial results released Sunday from the northern, oil-rich province of Tamim. The province is home to the disputed city of Kirkuk, which is fiercely contested among its Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen people.

Mr. Allawi picked up another province, the Sunni stronghold of Anbar in western Iraq, winning nearly 100,000 votes more than his closest competitor, the Sunni coalition Iraqi Accordance.

But the Kurds faired better in their stronghold in northern Iraq. The Kurdish Alliance was ahead in Dahuk, where 55 percent of the votes had been counted, and in Sulaimaniyah, with 63 percent of the vote tallied.

The INA was in front Sunday in Dhi Qar province, where 58 percent of the votes have been counted thus far.

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