Iraq PM said to be ahead on eve of vote results
By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Initial results from Iraq's national election are likely to be released by Thursday, Iraqi and U.N. officials said on Wednesday, as further signs emerged of a strong showing for Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Iraqi's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki speaks to reporters after voting at a polling station in the Green Zone in Baghdad March 7, 2010. (REUTERS/Ali Abbas/Pool)
The Iraqi National Alliance (INA), a largely Shi'ite group that is challenging Maliki's bid to win a second term, told a news conference that according to their informal tallies the prime minister was ahead in at least 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces.
A decisive victory by any political coalition is unlikely in an election Iraqis hope will bring a measure of stability after years of sectarian warfare as U.S. troops prepare to pull out. Negotiations to form a new government could take months.
Iraq has been on edge since Sunday's vote, during which 39 people were killed in attacks, but electoral officials say they require at least another day to reach the 30 percent threshold needed to declare preliminary results.
Final results may require several more weeks.
"Tomorrow afternoon we will start publishing the preliminary election results on our screen. And we will continue to do that as we finish counting and checking the votes," said Faraj al-Haidari, Iraq's top electoral official.
Ad Melkert, the U.N. special representative to Iraq, earlier told a news conference the vote count was proceeding at a good pace. He said first results were likely by Thursday.
"This is an honest process and that's why it is very important that the announcement of the preliminary results will be accepted by all," Melkert said.
"I think it's fair to say the world has been impressed by the professional way that these elections have taken place."
MALIKI LOOKS STRONG
The INA estimates were the latest indicator that Maliki's State of Law coalition, running on a law-and-order platform, was well placed to grab a big share of the 325-seat parliament.
There is no indication, though, that any bloc will win an outright majority and weeks of negotiations over a coalition government are likely to ensue.
Qusai Abdul-Wahab, an INA candidate, said State of Law was slightly ahead with 1.9 million votes in 11 provinces, while the INA had 1.8 million, according to their tally. Other counts have suggested the gap between the two is wider.
"Still remaining to be counted are Mosul, Kirkuk, Salahuddin, Diyala, along with Kurdistan and western provinces," Abdul-Wahab said.
The provinces left out include Sunni Arab strongholds like Anbar, where support for Maliki or the INA is unlikely to be strong.
Abdul-Wahab said that the INA tally did not include "special voting" that included police, soldiers and prison inmates, or votes cast by Iraqis living in other countries.
Members of Maliki's coalition have said they expect State of Law to be the biggest bloc in the next parliament but that it would need to form an alliance with one or two other lists.
A secular, cross-sectarian line-up led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi appeared to be polling well in Sunni areas of the north and west, according to the informal tallies.
The INA put that group, the Iraqiya List, far behind with around 666,000 votes in the provinces it had tallied.
Turnout was 62 percent, higher than in last year's provincial election, despite a spate of insurgent attacks that killed 39 people, all but one of them in Baghdad, on voting day.
The U.S. military, which stayed in the background while Iraqi security forces protected the election, praised the conduct of the vote and said the violence had been limited.
General Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said plans were on track to reduce troop levels from 96,000 now to 50,000 by the end of August, ahead of a full withdrawal by end-2011.