Al Maliki in the lead in first returns from Iraq election

Iraq's parties have begun to jockey for position, with the three major blocs all claiming a strong showing in Sunday's poll.

Sisters of Fayha Kadim, 23, and her son Muntadhar Waleed, 3, who were both killed in blasts in northeastern Baghdad Sunday, grieve at their funeral in Najaf, Iraq, Monday, March 8, 2010.  The election day's death toll was 36, with various incidents of rockets and mortars, hand grenades and bombs all being used to target polling stations and the people voting.  (AP Photo/Alaa al-Marjani) *** Local Caption ***  BAG113_Mideast_Iraq_.jpg *** Local Caption ***  BAG113_Mideast_Iraq_.jpg
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BAGHDAD // With vote counting under way but incomplete, Iraq's political parties have begun to jockey for position, with the three major blocs all claiming a strong showing in Sunday's election. The State of Law coalition, headed by the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, won in key provinces, according to early indicators collected from polling centres. Ayad Allawi, the leader of the Iraqiyya list, appeared to be his main challenger.

A senior Iraqi official with access to privileged election information, said initial indications put Mr Allawi ahead in Mosul, Anbar, Diyala and Salahadin. Mr al Maliki was in front in Baghdad, Basra, Karbala and Babil. The official, who is not affiliated to any party and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr al Maliki appeared strongest nationwide. If accurate, these results would be a blow to the Iraq National Alliance, a largely Shiite coalition made up of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists, followers of the cleric Muqtada al Sadr. They had been tipped as strong contenders.

Publicly at least the INA claims to be still in the running. "The race is between State of Law and the INA," said Basem al Awadi, a spokesman for ISCI. As speculation mounted about the results, it became clear that bitter pre-election divisions have anything but healed. Iraqiyya officials repeated allegations that the State of Law coalition had cheated and warned they would oppose a Maliki victory "by all means".

Mr Allawi had previously raised concerns about the impartiality and competence of Iraq's independent high electoral commission, which administered the ballot. "We will wait to see the final results, but if there is cheating we will withdraw from the political process and we will do whatever it takes to fill our rightful position in the government," said Nisreen al Damenouji, a spokesperson for Iraqiyya.

"We expect to win a fair election, but a lot happened yesterday at the polls and a lot has happened today that we are not happy with. For example, we have information that Iranian agents have inserted voting papers on State of Law's behalf." Like Mr Allawi, Ammar al Hakim, the leader of ISCI, has also raised concerns about the independence of the electoral commission, particularly after reports of irregularities in special voting on Thursday.

"We witnessed problems in the last election, but that was a local government election and we thought it would be better to be patient," Mr al Hakim said, insisting that this time the party would not stand for "any violations or unfair measures". On Thursday the commission opened conditional voting boxes as thousands of soldiers found their names had been left off electoral rolls. Monitors said the emergency measure left the ballot open to double voting because names were not checked against a register.

One candidate told The National that his brother, who serves in the armed forces, had voted for him five times. Faraj al Haydari, chairman of the electoral commission, admitted that double voting may have taken place, but said it would be eliminated when the results are compiled and checked against the electoral roll. "We are new to the democratic experience and it will take many years to transition from dictatorship to democracy," he said. "No one will accept the results. The important thing is that we do our job according to international standards and we don't worry about the results."

He said claims of foul play were expected as political blocs try to cover themselves in case of poor performance. The Sadrists have said they will release their own results, compiled by INA observers, and that they refuse to accept commission's version unless the two counts tally. Such claims do not bode well for the difficult process of forming a government, which is almost certain to require cross-party coalitions, with no single group expect to win a majority.

A withdrawal by any of the blocs, as Iraqiyya has threatened, could also be a devastating blow to hopes for national unity. Iraqiyya appears to have performed well in Sunni-majority areas, and there were expectations that Sunni participation in the ballot - they largely boycotted the last election in 2005 - could usher in a period of truly representative government, rather than sectarian rule. If the Sadrists are also unhappy with the election outcome, large numbers of Iraqis may again find themselves disenfranchised.

Supporters of Mr al Maliki rejected suggestions of wrongdoing and said the election was fair and that its outcome had to be respected. "Maliki has won in many places across the country, even in Sunni areas and that is a good thing for Iraq," said Naji Faras, a candidate with the State of Law coalition in the southern province of Karbala. "I hope that Iraqiyya accepts that reality and doesn't make problems. The Iraqi people have spoken and they have made it clear that Maliki is their choice."

Results may be announced as early Thursday, according to independent high electoral commission, although final vote tallies are subject to confirmation by the Supreme Court. Zoran Trajkovski, electoral affairs officer at the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which provides support and technical assistance to commission, said election administration had improved over previous ballots. "Displaying the results on the wall of each polling station shows great transparency; it couldn't really be more transparent," he said. "We need to have the acceptance of the results because that is key to political reconciliation. IHEC are really working hard and have got the picture that transparency is key." He said that no problems had been apparent at the polling stations his team visited in Najaf and Ramadi on Sunday.

Turnout nationwide was reported at 62 per cent, though in the disputed city of Kirkuk, about 70 per cent of registered voters cast ballots. In Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold, participation was lower, approximately 50 per cent. Al Qa'eda in Iraq had specifically threatened Sunnis in an effort to stop them taking part. Turnout at the last national parliamentary elections, in 2005, was higher, at 76 per cent.